French Israel

Wednesday, March 16, 2005

Of strikes and rewrites

One of the products of the blogging culture is hyper-realistic journalism. For those who can keep up, blogs have converted the art of reporting and commenting on news. The whole phenomenon has been well studied by James Lileks; I'll provide links if anyone is interested.

One of the conventions that bespeaks honesty in a blogger is his or her use of the strike tag in html (demonstrated in the title). Rather than editing or deleting an inaccurate or outdated piece of information, the old words are struck out, remaining readable, and the update is furnished with the honest admission that it is an update. It's an improvement from the "corrections" blurb that newspapers print, buried somewhere within, isn't it? Or the accuracies buried somewhere in Dan Rather's mind...

Not every blog is a news and current events report or a source of various punditry. This one is not, for example. I don't really know what this blog is, besides an occasionally sanity-preserving device and an attempt to keep in touch with friends back home (most of whom don't read it). Maybe it's just a combination sketchbook and journal.

Last week I wrote a heavy and heartfelt posting about American Jews who are pro-Israel but who for various reasons choose not to make aliyah. It was a reaction to a posting on another blog by someone who fit into that category. The author had described a couple of scenarios of many young, idealistic, educated, single Jewish adults who have made an attempt to live in Israel, but who ended up leaving. I was discouraged by the reasons given and by the outcome of the scenarios, although I know them to be realistic. I displayed my biases and wrote a sad critique of the mentality described by the author.

And then the author withdrew his posting. Changed his mind. Wasn't satisfied with the flow and outcome of his posting. It happens.

I chose to withdraw mine. No point in arguing with an interlocutor who has already left. I realise that was not the hyper-realistic way to deal with the situation, but there are higher values to take into consideration.

The topic will come up again, I'm sure, and I'd love to deal with it again. For those who want to talk about it, please drop me a line with your thoughts.
Pinḥas Ivri 19:52 | (0) comments |

Saturday, February 26, 2005

More on Lashon HaKodesh

Treading Fences writes:
One more thought - not all innovations are secular in nature or loazit in origin. How do the writings of HaRav Kook, who created words himself, fit into your "modern hebrew" scheme. The words of HaRav Kook are new, and yet are arguably a lashon of/for kodesh if not lashon kodesh itself (solely tanachik in strict def?)

The answer is, of course, that I don't know. I cannot afford to be a hardliner yet because languages are incredibly complex creatures, and this one (Hebrew) has extra features. And as soon as I take a position, there will be someone with good evidence to the contrary.

I will throw out a few more thoughts à propos in hopes of eventually getting somewhere close to answer these kinds of questions:
Pinḥas Ivri 22:45 | (0) comments |

the return of Adi

Long-time readers may remember Adi Neuman, who was my ḥavruta (Talmudic study partner) in yeshivah something like a year and a half ago, until I was married. Adi introduced me to the modern art of blogging, which I had previously relegated to the back of my mind under "Web Journals -- see amateur, context-free writing that nobody wants to read anyway". Needless to say, I discovered that it could be a more elevated medium, and decided to set out on my own. In fact, some of you may have found my blog from a link on Adi's "Home Beis".

At some point he went on hiatus, leaving us with a cryptic statement about vacation, preceded by a descriptions of his daily life in yeshivah, something of a combination between intense learning, poor nutrition, and sleep deprivation.

Well, he has returned to the keyboard after what seems like a year now, and apparently without having lost his acerbic and highly intelligent sense of humour.

It's Jewspeak. You read it here first, probably. Because I discovered it on my own just an hour after his first posting. How's that for keeping in touch with old yeshivah buddies?
Pinḥas Ivri 20:54 | (0) comments |

Tuesday, February 08, 2005

MiniUlpan: don't say rine, say rain

Those who have seen the musical comedy My Fair Lady, or those who are unfortunate to know only this version of the Pygmalion story, may remember the song "The Rain in Spain", which contained this line:
"Ay" not "I", "O" not "Ow", Don't say "Rine," say "Rain".

This was sung by the virtual Greek Chorus of Professor Higgins' cleaning staff to the low-class Eliza Doolittle, who seemed incapable of adopting his Estuary English in place of her East-Ender poor girl's accent.

"Don't say X; say Y" is a familiar pattern and has served as the format for many a grammarian's table of correct language usage for centuries.
Such lists are written by well-meaning educators who just hope to see some continuity in their little part of the human tradition. As soon as a grammarian starts composing such lists, however, the linguist knows the grammarian's work is doomed, in all likelihood.

From our point of view, they often show at what point in history the a word underwent a change. I first encountered these lists in Latin when studying how that language transformed itself into the Romance Languages. Such lists were written by medieval scholars, often Roman Catholic clergymen, who saw that the integrity of the international language was in peril if people kept using the words incorrectly. One of the most famous is the appendix Probi, compiled in the 3rd or 4th century. Here is an example from Probus' long list of common Latin mistakes.
masculus non mascel
lanius non laneo
iuvencus non iuvenclus
barbarus non barbar
equs non ecus
coqus non cocus

The first word of each pair is the "correct" Latin word (the way Cicero, for example, would have written it) and the second is the "incorrect", or dialectal form of the word that had crept into common usage.

Guess which form survived?


You see, I tend to think Probus was right. He knew the correct spelling of words; he just wanted to prevent people from making further mistakes.

Unfortunately some of his readers were as receptive as Jewish high-school students. (In a private school that their parents are paying a lot of money to send them to. Especially if it is an elite, pluralistic high school that prides itself in the quality of its academics.) By that, I mean, not receptive at all. Tell them what the correct word is: they laugh. "Nobody says that." Since they have such a grasp of world affairs, they are sure they must be right.

Truth be told, it was not always the second, incorrect form that survived. Linguists would have us believe that was the case. But sometimes scribes took the lesson seriously. And sometimes purists at a later date rectified the mistakes (such as in the case of the humanists of the fifteenth century, criticised by Desiderius Erasmus in his Dialogus Ciceronianus). But that was indeed true often enough to convince linguists that once a change has taken hold in the popular usage of the language enough to be noted, it is probably irreversible.

Having said that, I would like to consider the effectiveness of attempts by grammarians to curb the incorrect use of Hebrew by Israelis. Whether the definition of what is correct comes from Tanakh, Mishnayot, or the modern Academia LeLashon HaIvrit, I am talking about any rule that has been established and taught, but from which the popular usage of the language is diverging.

I quote from the Orthodox Union Center's Torah Tidbits, issue 652:
Rather than a word or two this week, we're presenting some rules of HaAcademiya. Abbreviations in Hebrew are marked with a GERESH (or GERSHAYIM), apostrophe or double quote, not a period. E.g.
'טל, not .טל (telephone)
רח' קרן היסד not .רח
אישור מס' 1300 not .מס
ת"ד 37015 not .ת.ד (P.O.B.)
ת"ז not .ת.ז

The obvious purpose of the OU Center publishing this list, and vocabulary reminders that come up in other issues, is to remind Hebrew speakers to try to use the accepted rules of the language rather than allowing the pernicious elements of other languages to come in and replace them. This is also a lively polemic in other languages, such as French, which has the Académie Française to set and promote rules of correct usage. As often as not it is the invasion of English words and grammar that causes problems, but sometimes it is just evolution of the language following its natural course as speakers mangle the spelling and pronunciation.

There is a small but important difference in this case. The OU's Torah Tidbits is addressed specifically to those who speak English and have in all likelihood learned Hebrew as a second language. Such persons may be more likely to consider themselves ongoing learners of Hebrew, continually improving it. Furthermore, it is my conviction that the Jewish world in general may pay more heed to such rules than other nationalities.

Am Yisrael has a vested interest in preserving both our religious and linguistic heritage. We may even consider it worthwhile to pay attention to "picky" details such as the use of gershayim instead of the period used in other languages for abbreviations. In such an idealistic, education-oriented environment, such reminders may actually stand a chance.
Pinḥas Ivri 23:49 | (11) comments |

Friday, January 28, 2005

farfalle , butterflies, and bow ties

Last night we ate a dish of farfalle (recipe here). This is a sort of of pasta known in English as bow tie pasta, for obvious reasons (see photo left).

In Italian the different varieties of pasta are mostly named for animals that they resemble. Vermicelli, for example, means "little worms". Farfalle means "butterflies". (singular farfalla).

It hit me a while later, while the food was digesting, that the Italian word farfalla and the Hebrew word parpar are perhaps related. Since it is forbidden to have a dictionary in an Orthodox household, I could not look up the origins of "parpar" or "farfalla". But my linguistic instincts kicked in: even though there is no direct route from Hebrew to Italian, there is still a chance.

I shared this hypothesis with my wife, explaining the Italian pasta-for-animals nomenclature. "But it doesn't look like a parpar to me", she said. "I thought it looks like a papillon."

To which I asked, surprised, what "papillon" means in Hebrew. Because in French, it means a butterfly.

Her answer? A papillon in Hebrew (and in Persian) is a bow tie.
Pinḥas Ivri 11:21 | (0) comments |

Tuesday, September 07, 2004

One year as an Israeli. One year of developing deep relationships with people whom I never knew before 2003, the large marjority of whom also left their homes, somewhere, to come here.

One year of identity crises that make the act of getting dressed each morning a Statement that I never intended to make.

One year of exploring my ancient roots in an educational environment that was built not-so-anciently in Vilna. (Okay, so that one is on the backburner now, until I can find something better. But I did it.)

One year of geographical exploration in this fascinating city and in this beautiful country, which instantly clears up any hint of regret.

One year of demonstrating the poverty of my writing for everyone with an internet connexion.

And one year of developing the fine art of compartmentalising everyone I see into neat socio-ethnic-religious-hashkafic categories -- only to realise in the end what a pointless exercise that is.

It would be trite and utterly unoriginal to remark at this point, "You know, I think the place is rubbing off on me." But I will make one observation about the national character here.

For most of my life, I would never have argued with anyone about anything. I hate confrontations. Unless someone decided to challenge me continually, and bring into question whether my ongoing existence on this planet is worthwhile (close family members, for example), I have usually left the argumentative persons alone. I keep friends that way. A few decide to push the issue; they haven't tasted blood yet, and they have a point to prove. They are not my friends or family anymore.

Much of my heartache in France, besides having to leave, was that strangers would lash out at each other, if one did something slightly convenient to the other. That is on the street, where otherwise they completely ignore each other. (Just to set the record straight: I am speaking of Lyon; in Paris people stare shamelessly, and will also yell. In the South people are generally openly friendly with strangers, but genuine relationships take longer to build. End of French lesson, for today.) If you are the object of derision, it makes you wish you could parry their insult with something witty. Had the strangers been a store-owner and a client, though, the former would have treated the latter as his Most Honoured Guest. Truly cordial and amicable relationships can develop in this setting, with repeated exposure. But strangers are fair game. I would have to keep reminding myself that it's nothing personal, but I was often hurt.

Israelis are not as polite as the French.

This story is about nothing important, but it has ended up showing me something surprising. At the Ulpan there are free English-language newspapers distributed each day. Okay, it's the HaAretz / International Herald Tribune, but I can't complain. It's free and some of it is surprisingly good. So now I must get one each day. I'm hooked.

The way it works is, each morning they are delivered to the guard station at the entrance, and the guard gives them to someone who brings them to the classrooms. A smaller stack of Jerusalem Posts are delivered to those students who have paid subscriptions.

Many mornings during the break between classes, I glance inside the guard station. The regular guard is a young woman; I ask her if there are still newspapers. If there are still some there, she tells me to go ahead and take one, or to take the whole stack to the classrooms. If she's not in her station, but somewhere else on the grounds, she tells me to go to the guard station and take them. I smile and say Todah, she smiles and says Bevakashah, and life is good.

And then there is another guard, a guy with black spikey hair, who thinks otherwise. The first time, I asked him (in Hebrew) if there are any newspapers there today.


"Then what about those?" I say, pointing to the stack of IHTs.

"You can't have one."

"Those are for people with a subscription?" I ask, guessing he may have the matter a bit confused, and that I will help him sort it out.

"No, those are for people (anashim)." End of answer. I am not sure what he means by that, but a talmudic scholar he is not. Perhaps he is just not exacting in his speech.

I tell him that up until now, this was not the case. "Perhaps it changed today", I suggested, even giving him an excuse.

"There are none for you."

The next day, I try again.

"Are there papers in English today?"


"Those are for other people?" I ask, pointing.

"They're for people who live here."

Well, that's for sure not true, but it's pointless to argue.

Until yesterday. I go by the guard station again. Empty. Stack of papers inside. Door locked. Window open. I go for the window.

Here he comes running, yelling in Hebrew, "What are you doing?!"

Instinctively, I stay calm and start fabricating a position, "Checking to see if someone is here."


"No one is here."

I realise now that I am not making sense, and that I'm arguing in Hebrew, which is probably good for my language skills, and that... Wait a minute...

What am I doing getting into an argument? And why does it feel so good to challenge his authority? And why is there no chance whatsoever that I'm going to concede to tell him the truth? And why do I feel like insulting him further? If only I could come up with the words...

"So what, no one was inside! Does that give you the right to open the window?!" he yells.

I walk away, saying, "Zeh lo habayah shelakh", "It's not your problem", in the feminine. It was a grammar mistake, inexplicable, but then I was satisfied with it. I guess there's no greater thrill for six-year-old boys in an argument than to call each other a girl.

Yeah, six-year-old boys.

For a friggin' newspaper.

Damned Israelis. Look what one year living among them has done to me.

Pinḥas Ivri 13:58 | (0) comments |

Saturday, September 04, 2004

Was sitting at the Shabbat table with family today, and they wanted to finish reading all the Tehillim [Psalms]. The way this works is, the entire book is broken up into several small booklets, each containing five or six Psalms.

This is normally not the kind of thing I go for, if I'm in a synagogue and the time is limited. Because my reading is that slow, and I want to do it right. This is especially true when the booklets handed out are the Zohar, which is written in Aramaic, slowing my reading down to 40% to 50% of its already slow pace. And is incomprehensible. At least with Tehillim, one can seize some meaning here and there.

But this was a Sephardic dinner table, which meant noone was going anywhere, anytime soon. So I took a couple.

HaShem had mercy on me, as I discovered that most of the Tehillim I was reading were from pesukei de-zimerah (which we read each morning before sha'harith) and the Psalms from Kabbalath Shabbath (which we read each Friday evening). So they were not so tough.

No real point here, except that among them was a choice passage, which showed the real Providence of the situation:

You will arise and show Tsion mercy, for the time to favor her, for the appointed time will have come.
For your servants have cherished her stones and favour her dust. (Tehillim 102:14-15)

Which means, basically, according to the Gaon of Vilna, that the ingathering of the exiles and the triumph of Israel will come as a result of the Jewish people coming here, loving even the stones and the dust here, and doing mitsvoth that are dependent upon being here (Kol HaTor).

Pinḥas Ivri 21:09 | (0) comments |

Wednesday, August 25, 2004

Coming Soon to a Neighbourhood Near You

Some explanation:
Kever Rachel = the tomb of our mother Ra'hel, wife of Ya'akov, whom he buried in Bethle'hem.
Hevron = Hebron
Diskont = English transliteration of the Hebrew transliteration of the English word "Discount" (cf. Mark Twain, Jumping Frog: In English, Then in French, Then Clawed Back into a Civilized Language Once More by Patient, Unremunerated Toil)

All buses have protective shielding against gun shots.

I think I'm actually going to do this.
Pinḥas Ivri 14:06 | (0) comments |

Wednesday, August 18, 2004

Self-referential warning sign

This is between Giva`t Mordekhai and Nayot on HaRav Herzog highway. I do not think I have ever seen a sign spell out its genre before. Note the extra length needed for that purpose.
Pinḥas Ivri 18:12 | (0) comments |

Friday, August 13, 2004

Speak the Language of the Hebrewman

Israeli singer Ehud Banai (his official site here; you can browse CDs for purchase here) has a song on his most recent album Ana Li titled "Hebrewman". It's a sort of rallying call for the Hebrew language. Speaking Hebrew connects one to an ancient tradition going all the way back to "Let there be light", and can be used for everyday use by persons today who want to "open their souls" include themselves in that noble and powerful legacy.

Ironically, the song is mostly in English, but that irony is attenuated a little by the fact that the song is reggae, and that it's epic-sounding bridge is in Hebrew. And while much of reggae today has been cheapened and bastardised by synthesisers and drum machines, Ehud Banai is a folk musician who uses real instruments for his Israeli rock-and-roll. The line in this song that best connects it to the original reggae (i.e. Rastafari) tradition is the claim that "From the deepest mess of downtown Babylon / It will take you to the next train to Mount Zion". When the rastafaris use the term "Babylon" they are talking about the colonial English government of Jamaica (and by extension the whole white-dominated political system), and when they use the term "Zion" they are usually talking about Ethiopia, as ruled by their messianic figure King Haile Selassie I (1892-1975).

They got it from us, of course. When we Jews say "Babylon", we're talking about our exile, as in the Psalm "Al Naharot Bavel" ("By the rivers of Bavel, there we wept and remembered Tsion"). And when we say "Zion" we mean Zion, here in Jerusalem.

By the looks of Ehud Banai and by the high quality of his music you would probably be inclined to call him a 'hiloni [secular] (that is, if you were inclined to participate in that damnable Israeli game that we all play called "Stick them in a category"). From some of his lyrics, though, I'm inclined to label him as a Masorti [traditionalist], though. As if that matters to some of you.

Anyway, he is right, of course. The Jewish national identity can only be fully reestablished (after a couple millennia of dispersal) when we all learn to use the Jewish language.

And that was enough of a reason for me to drop out of yeshivah and enroll in an Oulpan [Hebrew-language school]. Well, that and the fact that my right to enroll for free was limited to a certain amount of time after my aliyah.

But it's ironic nonetheless that I would have to leave the Orthodox yeshivah in which I was studying in order to study Hebrew. The explanation is simple: the yeshivah teaches guys how to study texts and learn to obey the mitsvoth. Everything is taught in English, even if the texts are in Hebrew or Aramaic, because that is the language spoken by all of the students there. And because most of them will probably return to their English-speaking homelands after their time of dedicated study. Some language skills are taught, but those classes are not the focal point of the yeshivah education. In other words, the yeshivah is not a training camp for future Israeli husbands and dads, or for Hebrewmen.

Just one anecdote. Some of the guys who come in have Israeli relatives; sometimes one of their parents is Israeli. A Persian guy with an Israeli mother (I think) came into my section of the yeshivah from Los Angeles and was even in my Gemara shiour. We would each take a turn reading from the text as we studied it, one day each person, and it came his turn one day. Now, most of us stumble over the words because they are in Aramaic and without vowels, but by this point in the class we are supposed to be a little familiar with the statements under investigation. But we still end up sounding like backpackers trying to read a street sign in Eastern Europe. This guy took his shot at reading the words, and did a superior job. He had the accent down pat and everything.

The rabbi's response: "Could you read that again, and sound a little less Israeli?"

I don't know if that did it, but the guy soon left the yeshivah and went to another one.

This is a dichotomy I cannot live with. My limoud is suffering right now, but it is a planned sabbatical. Meanwhile, at Oulpan Etsion, I'm learning the ins and outs of Hebrew grammar, and being forced to put it into practice. With the correct pronunciation to boot. The atmosphere is more like that of a university (cough mixed cough), with its dormitories and everything. And it is true that not everyone there is serious about learning; nor is everyone religious. But they are all olim 'hadashim -- new immigrants from various countries: England, France, South Africa, Australia, Russia, Argentina, Uruguay, Cuba... Most of them just arrived less than a month ago. Some have family here, but most do not. Some are religious, and some not. But they all have some kind of quasi-religious Jewish identity that led them to make Israel there new home, beginning in Jerusalem.

Someday we'll all get out of Babylon.
Pinḥas Ivri 14:53 | (0) comments |

Monday, August 02, 2004

Since beginning Ulpan Etsion a couple of weeks ago, a few things have become clear about my aliyah, in August of last year. I would like to mention a few of these experiences, as it may be of some help to those who are in the process. I'm also helping that someone who is more experienced, and can see the mistakes I'm making, will perhaps enlighten me so that I can avoid future trouble.

This is not intended as a blanket criticism of Israeli bureaucracy -- I have seen it operate quite efficiently sometimes. Despite the strikes and the horrible lines at the Misrad HaPnim [Interior Ministry], I have been able to do most of what I needed to do. I could outdo many tales of woe from fellow Olim with similar anecdotes from my experience in France, just to give an example, from when I moved there a few years ago.

When I first decided to consider aliyah seriously -- and by that I mean within the year -- someone gave me the contact info of the shaliach in Miami (I was living in Atlanta at the time). I called his office; they sent me some information, and within a month or so he made a two-day visit to Atlanta to interview candidates. That was in the spring of 2003.

I must wonder now, in retrospect, if this is way conspiracies are perpetuated. Left to my own devices, would I perhaps have walked into the offices of the Israeli consulate in Atlanta first, and discovered the blinding light of clarity? Would they have helped me immigrate to their country, or would they have told me (more likely) that immigration was not their job, and directed me to the Sochnut [Jewish Agency]?

If I were immigrating to a different country, one which didn't have an Ethno-Religious Agency, how would I have done it? I guess I did not study civics well enough; I do not know whether that is the job of a Consulate or of an Embassy. Or of some third party, which has a history of confiscating and losing some 12,000 passports of North-African immigrants.... [Revised: I heard 12,000 on the news; the linked article says 20,000.]

Back to what really happened. I brought all the requested documents and photos to my meeting with the shaliach. He was kind and professional, and gave me a rundown of information about things such as the Sal Klita and the ulpan, the one-way flight on El Al, a taxi ride to my destination (whatever that might be), and the like. He told me his objections to the shipping loan, which he expected to be cancelled any day (it was, as I understand it from the Merkaz HaKlita). One thing I remember him mentioning in particular was that if I lived across the city from where the ulpan was located, the state would pay for my transportation. He was about to retire in a few months, and was happy that my target date was within his regime, so that I could be added to his statistics.

I had a few hang-ups: I was about to make a pilot trip to Israel (first ever), so would be needing to have my passport with me for that. That could make it tough for his office to get my passport at the time needed to put a visa in it. And what's more, my passport was about to expire, since it dated from 1993. In retrospect, again, I wonder if I could have renewed the passport during my six weeks here, and obtained the visa then. Probably not.

At the opportune moment (after my pilot trip), I was visiting some friends in Washington, D.C. We were close to the neighbourhood with all the Embassies, and I had a bright idea: since time is of the essence, why not take my new passport to the Israeli Embassy for the visa? I called the shaliach's office, who told me that would do no good. They really needed for me to send it to Miami, so they could take it to the consulate there, and send it back to Atlanta.

They were efficient, though. I had the passport-cum-visa back in my hands a few days before the flight.

I had exactly three questions for the shaliach's office during the filing process:

  1. Could I import a firearm? I realised that obtaining a permit to carry one would be more difficult (yes, I know I do not live in the shta'him [settlements] at this moment, and that it would be easier to obtain one if I did) but since I was moving to Israel for good, with everything, would I at least be allowed to bring it into the country for storage?

  2. Could I import a motorcycle? Though not much of a biker, I had been without a car for a while and was borrowing a motorcycle from a friend. It was old and third-hand, although in excellent repair, and would take up much less room on a lift than a car. Perhaps I would buy it from him and bring it with me. Besides, there was little chance I could afford a car here.

  3. Could I use my Hebrew (rather than English) family name in the immigration? After all, all documents from this point on would be in Hebrew, not English, and so many immigrants had done so before. (Many Europeans did so, often just choosing a Hebrew name for their family, and all politicians are required to do so, as I understand the story.)

His answers were:
  1. Don't know. Try to find out after you get there.

  2. Don't know. Try to find out after you get there.

  3. Don't know. Try to find out after you get there.


Obviously, all three questions needed to be answered before I got there, even if the first two were a bit bizarre. But they were not answered, leading to some measure of inconvenience. (And I dropped the motorcycle idea altogether.)

Regarding the ulpan, I have now discovered that there are some Olim moving directly into the dormitory facilities of the ulpan. Sure, they're paying, but it is much cheaper than typical apartment rent.

And even though the free ulpan credit lasts the first eighteen months of one's Aliyah, it should be stressed that the first six months is the best time to do it. I discovered the hard way that the Sal Klita runs out at six months, and that any continued payments after five months are based on weekly visits to the Lishkat HaAvodah [Bureau of Employment]. This is in conflict with the ulpan, but the Misrad HaKlitah [Ministry of Absorption] just chastises me for not going to ulpan in the first six months. At least the Lishkat HaAvodah does not chastise me for not finding a job, as they say I should not even bother until finishing ulpan.

No one told me about the option of living at the ulpan. And since it is better to do this at the beginning of one's aliyah, I think I should have been told about it while still in the U.S. Like, before I was frantically calling distant acquaintances, looking for a halfway house.

And you can forget about transportation across to the ulpan, if you are receiving Sal Klitah or unemployment money... Which you are, if you are studying at the ulpan when you are supposed to.

As a result of these experiences (which I am only skimming now, leaving out the real salient details), I am simply wondering: what exactly was I doing with the Sochnut?

But how else can it be done?
Pinḥas Ivri 18:12 | (0) comments |

Friday, July 23, 2004

I'm blogging from downtown Jerusalem, Yaffo Street. (Or "Jaffa", as some people call it for some reason.) It's been a little more than a week since I moved into my new apartment, and a few days since I began my official Oulpan. And everything is going great.

Bezeq was amazingly quick at installing my new line in the apartment. Kavei Zahav was wonderful about moving my DSL account from the old number to the new one. But... for me to convince Bezeq to move my Kavei Zahav DSL signal from the old account to the new one is a different story. Hence, I'm blogging from Yaffo Street, on the internet for the first time in a week.

Those who know the Atlanta scene, and who knew me there, probably knew whom I was talking about when I said, a couple of weeks ago, that I have a friend who is in Special Forces training in the Tsahal (IDF). He used to be my 'hevrouta, briefly, while we were living in Athens, attending the University of Georgia. Well, he just finished his year and a half of training, and is probably in the most excellent shape of anyone in Erets Yisra�l at the moment. I just ran into him at the Central Bus Station (snuck up on him, actually, to my delight), after not having seen him for well over that year and a half.

I had run into his brother, who is studying in the Mir yeshivah, several times over the last month, and we had made plans for them to come over this Shabbat. So it was pretty cool to see him today, even before he has had time to get a checkup at the hospital and get some sleep.

These guys are a couple of my role models, both for aliyah and for all-around idealism. I'm sure I'll have a lot more to say in coming days about our time together this Shabbat. But for now, I'm on the clock, so it's time to close this.

One more piece of news. I'm planning to branch into French-language postings here on this blog. Those of you who may be wanting to ask, "Why French?!" will have your answers. The title of this blog should start making more sense, though. That's enough for now.
Pinḥas Ivri 11:15 | (0) comments |

Thursday, July 01, 2004

It could happen to anyone. You have arrived in Israel for the first time in your life. And you are about to spend your first day in a yeshivah.

You have spent a week in Yeroushalayim with friends and family of friends -- people who had never seen you before, but who are part of the network of kindness and hospitality that comes naturally in our religion. That makes you proud and grateful to be part of the clan yehoudi. You vow silently that you, someday, will be in the position to welcome pilgrims from afar into the holy land. (And you make a mental note that "Clan Yehoudi" would be a good name for a fine single-malt scotch-type liquor, which could be distilled right here in the Holy Land.)

You have spent almost a week adjusting to jetlag and seeing the sights. You've been not just around the capital but also in the Galil. You've prayed for the first time in your life beside kivrei tsaddikim [gravesites of righteous persons from past generations], such as those of Rabbi Méïr Ba'al HaNess, Rabbi Moshe ben Maïmon, and various Tanyaïm. Funny, they didn't have kivrei tsaddikim where I come from, you think.

You have taken a slightly dangerous motorboat excursion in the Sea of Galilee (the Kinneret), and an armoured bus line through the craggly desert of the West Bank. You have seen the Kotel and the Old City for the first time in person, after so many hundreds of times in photographs and paintings. And you've even dirtied your dress shoes in the Guéoulah / Meah Sha'arim neighbourhood (more photos here).

By the end of the week, though, you are getting tired of just being a tourist, and are ready to get into shiourim (classes) -- after all, learning to study Torah is one of the principal reasons for your coming to Israel now, even if a host of tangential interests are in the back of your mind. Although the rabbanim of the yeshivah shouldn't be expecting you till the following week (since you did not want to let them in on your week of free-lance exploration), you decide to find the place now and get started as much as possible. At the office, you are informed by the secretary that no rabbanim are around -- it's Friday, after all, but you fill out some paperwork to get yourself on file. Those whom you need to speak with are not around, and no one can tell you where exactly to bring your luggage when you come back on Sunday to plunge into study. The living quarters for your programme are in an apartment far away from the main campus. Thinking back to when you had asked Rav Shaked on the telephone, how to find the place, he had told you, "I'll take you there when you get here".

Back to first hosts, moving your luggage to second hosts, where you will be spending Shabbat. That's it: first Shabbat in the Holy Land. There is special meaning when you say, in the moussaf prayer on Shabbat morning, "Yehi ratson... sheta`aleinou besim'hah le-artseinou..." (May it be your will, our God and the God of our forefathers, that you bring us up with joy into our land...). You're on a roll: berakhoth (blessings) are making much more sense this week.

When you arrive at the front gate in a taxi on Sunday morning, you dump your luggage on the front steps. An older gentleman helps you carry your stuff up and past the security gate, and welcomes you to the yeshivah.

When you proceed back to the office, a rabbi is there chatting with people, and he looks at you askance a few times. When you mention which programme you are in, he lights up. He is Rav Shaked. "I knew for some reason I should stick around and see what you were here for!"

He says the place is just a few blocks away. You don't want to leave your luggage on the main campus, so your throw your heavy luggage over your shoulders, revealing instantly to any onlookers that you are probably not Frum-From-Birth. But then again, that's why you are now in a ba'alei-teshouvah yeshivah for reindoctrination.

The whole institution is mostly English-speaking, and is populated largely by American, South African, and British guys. In your particular programme, Americans are definitely outnumbered. But you find that atmosphere pleasant -- it's civil and surprisingly low on ego. As you set up in your bedroom and find your way around, you find guys here are unbelievable welcoming and accepting. They don't know you from Adam's housecat, but since you're with Rav Shaked they assume you're alright. Or maybe because their post-British-Empire manners are highly polished. Or maybe because the Rosh Yeshivah gave a speech to them at the beginning of the year encouraging such warm, welcoming behaviour. Or maybe because they can see you are happy to be there, and you are projecting it onto them. And the idealism of studying Torah full-time is lighting you all up.

You cannot jump into shiourim yet, curiously, because they knew you were coming this week, so they didn't expect you for a couple more days. Thus there is no class you can join, and you have no 'havrouta (study partner). "There's a guy coming in a couple of weeks..." You'll hear that a lot in the coming year as guys come and go.

Rav Shaked takes you to his office. He is a vivacious man who seems to have fifteen things going on at once. Physically, he reminds you of the English actor Simon Callow (photo here), except that he has a heavy New York accent. He tells you what this programme is all about -- "a one- to two-year course in self-sufficiency in Torah learning" -- and muses about their success or lack thereof in recruiting in different locations. Where you come from, for example, they almost get no one. But since you were referred there by a friend, they figured you must be alright.

He talks about the importance of individualism. You discuss with him the subject of white vs. coloured shirts, and take it as a good sign that the shirt he is wearing under his suit jacket is light blue. He waxes ecstatic about a shiny greenish shirt that he has, which he can only wear on Fridays because he's home that day with the children, not at the yeshivah. You're Sepharadi, you tell him, and he waves his hands almost in protest of an objection never brought up, "That's great! We don't want to `ashkenize' anyone here. Not at all!" And you breath a sigh of relief when he makes the comment, "This is the kind of yeshivah where we want a guy to feel comfortable if he's still wearing a kippah serougah when he leaves, for example." Obviously he glanced at your head and saw the large, knit black kippah sitting atop. He wants you to feel okay being who you are. But he just brought up the Mystical Underpinnings of Orthodox Philosophy, so you decide to go for the money question: what's the status of the black hat here? "The truth is," he muses, "We don't let a guy put on a black hat until at least his second year." Interesting. It's a relief. No pressure to conform to the of haberdashery of the yeshivish world for at least a year.

He opens up a volume of the Talmud, one that you picked, and you show him what you've learned already. It's an easy sougiya, and he knows it ba'al peh (by heart). He asks you a few questions on it as you go along, and since you've studied this already, you answer with fluency. The placement test is quickly over; he shuts the volume. He casually tells you that you are below the level of most guys when they come in here, but that's alright. You'll catch up quickly, and by next year it will be immaterial.

You take a walk with into the Beith Midrash (central study room) where he introduces you to a few guys, and gives you a little 'houmash lesson on this week's Torah portion, parshath Shla'h. He gives you advice to read Rashi's commentary with translation, and then to try to read the same commentary in a standard volume with the special script. He gives you a few questions to work on over the next few days. Then the two of you take a walk back to the main campus of the yeshivah. There's some paperwork to finish up.

Lucky timing: tomorrow the guys are going to take a bus trip with Rav Beryl Wein to Tsippori. If you had flown in today, as they expected, you would have completely missed it.

So the next day, you start your yeshivah career being pampered by yet another voyage through Israel, and a tour through the region for which people would turn green with envy. You bring a 'houmash (book of the Torah) along in the bus with the intention of reading this week's portion with Rashi. It's a lot more than what you've been reading, which is why you bring it with you on the bus, but that's the intensity you're expecting in this education, by golly. A few other guys have brought along sefarim, too. You get to meet a few more on the bus.

The Torah portion, incidentally, is about the twelve explorers who were sent to scout out the land of Israel before the people as a whole entered. A verse says (13.21),
"So they went up, and spied out the land from the wilderness of Tsin until Re'hov, and the entrance to 'Hamath..."

On this, Rashi comments,
"They went along its boundaries along the length and the breadth, like [the Greek letter] gamma; they went in the direction of the southern boundary, from the eastern extreme until the western extreme, as Moshe had commanded, 'Go up into the South', by way of the southeastern border until the [Mediterranean] Sea -- for the sea is the western boundary. And from there they turned and went all along the western boundary along the edge of the Sea, until the entrance to 'Hamath which is near Mount Hor, in the northwestern corner..."

While reading this, you realise that the route the bus is taking is passing along the west coast of Israel, rather than the east side that had you traversed last week. You and the other guys are thrilled when you see the Mediterranean Sea, and scramble to the siddour (prayer book) to look for the berakhah that one says. A rabbi is consulted. He gives the disappointing news that "we're not sure anymore whether to say the berakhah on the Mediterranean", and he gives you a general-purpose blessing to say instead. Bummer.

The whole experience is nevertheless a bit overwhelming. The tragic outcome of the story in the parashah is now in sharp contrast with the enthusiasm you experience, along with the other guys, both at the sight of the Sea and of the beauty of the Land. Tsippori was, among other things, the residence of Rabbi Yéhoudah HaNassi, the revered compiler of the Mishnah. It was also an outpost of the Roman Empire, where they had the government seat for their "Palestina" province. Floors and streets decorated with mosaics rich in classical mythology coexist with synagogues and in-house mikvaoth (immersion pools for ritual purity).

"But Rabbi!" some guys protest to Rav Wein. "These couldn't have been frum Jewish people if they had these [mythologically themed] designs in their living rooms!" Yet they have their own mikveh...

Rav Wein explains, sure, you can imagine that religious people were perfect if you want to, but the reality is much more complex. People at that time thought nothing wrong with having what is basically pagan illustrations decorating their homes, just as today in America, Orthodox Jewish families may have gnomes sitting around their home, and think nothing of it.

The day is full of such surprises. Later, at Beith Shéarim, where several gravesites are located (including that of Rabbi Yéhoudah HaNassi), Rav Wein explains that bodies were put into stone graves, and the bones were collected many months later and put into ossuaries. "But Rabbi...!" Conventional thinking is that Jewish burial practices require the body to be placed in dirt, but the Rav explains that stone has the same din (legal status) as earth. Oh.

An outdoor barbecue (or braai, according to the South Africans) is set up, using the traditional flat-bottomed mangal. (A mangal is an ersatz grill with no side or bottom ventilation holes that cooks food only at great effort. Grilling food on a mangal is an opportunity for Israelis to be active participants in the cooking of their food. What one American guy can do in twenty minutes with a real grill, a beer, and a stogie, ten Israelis can do in 45 minutes and a mangal.) Your prey is partially frozen meat, which guys are jabbing at with disposable plastic flatware. But you get a good dose of chicken in the end, and then you take the bus trip home. It's been a full day, and it could have happened to... no one else in the world.

P.S. Hey! Still around? Did you check out any of those links? I put some real zingers in there. Rav Shaked's look-alike Simon Callow goes interviewing musicians and psychologists to find out why his favourite music makes his spine tingle. And what is his personal favourite? Why, it's Beethoven's Piano Sonata! You know, that one.

And is that gnome website for real?

I think a good website could be titled, "But Rabbi...!" In it, a team of Jewish scholars could answer the questions raised by the reality of archaeological finds, secular literature contemporary with sacred Jewish texts, the differences between Jews of different nationalities, etc.

And if I could tell you how many times I had said "Clan MacGregor" aloud, with a Scots accent, every time I saw the stuff, ... well, it would be a high number.
Pinḥas Ivri 00:54 | (0) comments |

Thursday, June 10, 2004

Where were we? That's right: the Southern Wall of the Temple Mount. I should give you an idea first of what we are talking about.

This panorama was slapped together from nine photos that I took with a PDA (a Palm Zire 71), and though I think it turned out better than the one I made from photos at Ma'arat HaKeshet; you be the judge. (Disclaimer: the process of taking the best material out of nine lousy shots and pasting it together has rendered some architectural elements slightly out-of-proportion with the others. This is not due to any religious bias that would, for example, take land that belongs to the Palestinians and give it to the Israelis.)

So let us orient ourselves. We're on the eastern side of the Old City of Jerusalem. On the extreme edges of the panorama you glimpse the walls of yeshivat Aish HaTorah, whose balcony affords this lovely view. This was my first physical visit to Aish, although my visits to their web site go back maybe seven or eight years. Some friends and I poked our head into Aish after last Wednesday's tour. A few went into the Beit Medrash, and I went to this deck. That's when I took these photos.

On the left you see a mosque and a gold-leaf dome from the seventh century. They are, respectively, the Mamlouk Ghawanima Minaret and Haram al-Sharif, the Shrine of the Rock (which incidentally is not a mosque, but protective housing around a rock which is believed by Muslims to be the point at which creation began). In that area you see a lot of housing, which is the Muslim "Quarter". To the right of the Dome of the Rock is the Temple Mount, where you see a lot of trees growing. Directly underneath those trees is the Western retaining wall of the Temple Mount, with the famous "Kotel" portion, its plaza, and steps leading up to the Mount for non-Jews on the hill to the right of the plaza. To the right of that begins the Al-Aqsa mosque (on the Temple Mount) and the archeological garden (on the ground). And beyond this mount, fuzzy in the background, is Har HaZeitim, the Mount of Olives.

That's what the canopy that looks like a picnic shelter is, to the right of where the retaining wall ends, and behind the turnabout. This is a slightly better photo of the area. To the right of that is another wall, this one dating back to Ottoman rulership the 16th century, and denoting an artificial end to the Old City. Beyond that wall and sloping down is the Ir David (City of David), which is where the historical Jerusalem spread out before the Second Temple period. For the moment it is mostly inhabited by Arabs, with but few idealistic Jewish families interspersed throughout.

We arrived at about 9:30a.m. and joined Rav Beryl Wein, who began by pointing out what's where, and telling of how Herod, the meglomaniacal ruler with dubious religious credentials, spared no expense and no amount of lives to built up this complex and the city around it.

He then led us to the entrance of the park below. Thirteen shekels per student (and yes, we were "students", not bakhourim, following his last incident at a museum -- recommended reading).

I could describe everything and show some snapshots, but it seems pointless since the Ophel's Archaeological Park's website is beautiful (albeit shock/flash-heavy; try here if you want to skip the intro). Even this tour company's site covers most of the basic historical context and physical explanations that Rav Wein gave us, and illustrates how this pile of stones from the Western Wall got here.

What I will offer is a few observations. First, that being out in the bright sunlight on a perfect, humidity-free warm day, and seeing stuff like this, below, is as about as good as I can get for a morning of yeshivah-sanctioned study. Think: these stones were thrown down from the top of the Temple Mount retaining wall by Romans when they destroyed the place in the year 70. By a couple of centuries, Jews were out of the picture, and the site has since been occupied by various religions. It was the pagan capital of a short-lived Roman province; it was they who called it "Aelia Capitolina" instead of Jerusalem and the land "Palestine" instead of Israel (somehow the latter stuck, and the present-day Arabs identify with this ignominous name from a fallen empire). It was a trash pile for That Other Religion, which was giddy with the symbolism of the defeat of the Old Law by the New Law. It became living quarters for the Knights Templar and their horses (who, with a limited grasp of history, called their stables "Solomon's Stables"). At present it is the largest mosque in Jerusalem. And for most of time these foreign occupations, these rocks, as well as other artifacts from the bustling city life that had been centered down here, have been covered in dirt, well preserved for discovery in the 20th century.

The famous song "Ki Ba Moed" takes its quote from this Tehillah (Psalm 102.13-14)
Thou wilt arise, and have mercy upon Zion; For it is time to have pity upon her, Yea, the appointed time is come.
For thy servants take pleasure in her stones, And have pity upon her dust.

A street down here, running parallel to the Western Wall, was a veritible Champs-Elysées for Jerusalemites and provincial tourists (lacking only the Virgin Megastore and the Gap, but including, I suspect, the Bistrot Romain). One could buy rare cloths and spices here, as well as animals for sacrifice (and ultimately, in many cases, for food), and change Roman currency or prutot for the holy half-shekel.

By the end of the two-hour tour I was entertaining notions of enrolling, NOW, in a degree programme that would lead to daily archeological or historical junkets like this. I don't really know why. I cannot explain the fascination, but it does not hit everyone. There are some persons, even those closest to me, who do not really see anything here but old stones and broken columns. Yet I have little means of explaining to them what is obvious to me, that this much more, and that everyone in this religion should be familiar with these things. (Of course, that's just my opinion, not a psak halakhah.)

And that is why I must go back to the classroom, where details of artifacts can be connected to real life. But when I say the "classroom" now, I mean the Beit Medrash. For now.

[Pause. Reflection. Should I go into this or not? It's a big can of worms, and worms are perhaps inappropriate at this point.]

The Huldah Gates are on the Southern Wall, where Jews used to enter the Temple Mount. There are no gates now, just as there was no Huldah when the gates were built, and named after her in the place where the prophetess used to sit during the period of the First Temple (possibly). I assume I am the last one on earth to know about her, because until this day I did not.

The steps that persons would take leading up to those gates are broad and short, but of varying width; Rav Wein said this was so that no one could run up quickly, but would approach the Temple Mount with reverent slowness.

Several of us asked why this area is not as big an attraction as the Kotel Plaza, considering that this is the same Wall, and is in fact the original point of entry to the Beit HaMikdash. A kehillah could come here for prayer, provided of course that they pay the 15-shekel entrance fee. One reason, explained Rav Wein, is that the Kotel is closer to the area of the Kodesh HaKedoshim, the Holy of Holies, which is somewhere beyond, underneath the Temple compound. Plus, up until 1967 we did not have access to this Southern Wall area, only the Kotel Plaza, and people got in the habit of going there instead. "Essentially, we are standing in Jordanian territory", he quipped sardonically.

Indeed, beyond these steps, on the eastern end of the wall, a crew was working on the blocks of the wall itself. Upon discovery of a bulge in this wall that could cause it to collapse in a short time, a Jordanian commission took over the repair work, since Israel and the Palestinians mutually distrusted each other. We saw them picking at the upper stones, their scaffold swinging wildly with the effort, and large chunks flying out and falling to the ground. I'm sure they know what they are doing; they are dealing with the more recent part of the structure which was (as I understand it) also built by the Ottomans. I just regret the unfortunate politics that got them to that point.

By two and a half hours, we were sunburnt, and proceeded inside to the air-conditioned museum portion. It was lavish, and sought to put things in perspective with film footage of the history of the excavations. Following this was a melodramatic reenactment of a pilgrim coming to bring a sacrifice in a computer-generated model of the Temple complex (complete with a side plot of an attractive woman who kept crossing his path, everywhere except in the steaming waters of the mikveh, thankfully). A good time was had by all.

(Adi Neuman also blogged this expedition; see his story here.)
Pinḥas Ivri 08:25 | (0) comments |

Friday, June 04, 2004

So I was a bit too ambitious on Wednesaday morning.
[Note to self: never start with "so".] I did indeed join my yeshivah group for a stroll around the archeological park of Jerusalem's southern wall with Rav Beryl Wein, and I took a boatload of photos (like the one here of Hulda's Gate, which used to be an entrance to the Temple). I learned a lot, and have a lot to say about it. But I didn't put together that whole replicated guided tour by Wednesday evening, as planned. In fact, it's still coming together. On Motsei Shabbath, if I'm lucky, or more likely at the beginning of the week.

Barring unforeseen circumstances, we're going to discuss yeshivah study after that. I entered yeshivah a year ago, after plodding around in amateur Jewish learning for many years, knowing basically nothing about how one goes about reading classic Jewish texts. And while I can still be squarely classified as an amateur, a few things are beginning to make sense. My goal is to try to explain the system to you in a clear and entertaining fashion, whether you have never read one word of Hebrew, or whether you are a life-long Talmid Hakham.

Why bother with the latter category? Because this will be more than just a simple sharing of personal experience. I have no guarantee that anyone wants to read my anecdotes, anyway. (To my 10 or so daily readers: I love each and every one of you... And I wish I had many more of you to love, if you get my drift.)

What I am interested in is learning how to teach and learning how to learn. This past year (and more, if you count the attempts I made at community synagogues in America) has been a massive experience of trial and error in a discipline that was quite new to me. Yet this discipline is considered the occupation par excellence for a Jew.

So what I intend to do is detail the experience, for better or for worse. With your help and critique, I hope we can make some sense of it and perhaps -- perhaps! -- try to imagine what would be an ideal method to learn such a difficult subject.

But first, we're going to see Ground Zero. Till then, Shabbath Shalom.
Pinḥas Ivri 15:19 | (0) comments |

Wednesday, June 02, 2004

Just got back from the néts [sunrise] minyan, which not only leaves me with ample time for breakfast, but also for writing a blog posting before shiour in yeshivah at 9:00a.m. Counterintuitively, waking up at 4:45a.m. or so and getting out the door in time for such a minyan also gives me energy throughout the day. I try to do it at least once a week, though seven times would be much better. We'll see how that goes -- the sunrise today was 5:34, and it's getting earlier.

Today my section of the yeshivah is scheduled to go on a tour of the Southern Wall of the Temple Mount with Rav and historian Beryl Wein. I hope to have a full report up this evening. [Also, see this link.]

In a bizarre coincidence (or according to rigorously precise schedule, the thought of which scares me), this is exactly one year later on the Jewish calendar from a trip I took with this same yeshivah group (mutatis mutandis) to Tsippori in the Galil, also with Rav Wein. And furthermore, that is exactly where we are in my story of beginning life here in Israel last year. In case you are following that story, you see, the day after Shavouoth is when I flew here. Spent the week galavanting around, including a trip to the Galil and Teveria, and then went to the yeshivah on Friday to register. Spent Shabbath with a family, but on Sunday I joined the programme; on Monday we went on that day trip. That made for two trips to the Galil in the space of about five days. Yes, I was spoiled. Full details of that trip coming up, as well. (Perhaps I should first go back up there to Tsippori in order to do a better researched story...)

And yes, we are spoiled to be doing a tour of the Southern Wall and its archaeological excavations with Rav Wein.

In blogging news, I have been trying to improve the quality and frequency of my postings. To this end I have been poking around the blogosphere, trying to see how things are done right and how things are done wrong. In the latter category, you may have also witnessed the recent, gruesome death of one of the Jewish world's most prestigious blogs. It had been at the top of the list, worth checking a few times a day. But in the last month it was rendered unreadable by a tasteless narcissist who was invited to "guest post", and insisted on sharing his drivel about 50 times per day. Yes, it increased hits, but the net result will not be good. (Though a "guest" stint was supposed to last two weeks, it keeps going.) It is sad to see quality reading plummet into toilet humour, especially in an ostensibly Orthodox and scholarly source of news.

In the former category, I have been spending a lot of time in James Lileks land, observing the art of his craft. His Institute has always been linked in the index on the right, but I have lately discovered his Bleat to be an incredibly good example of personal blogging, and have included the link to it as well.

(I may come along here later and add hyperlinks, but most of the above-mentioned things, you can easily find for yourself.) [Links added today, Friday 4 June.]

I also feel it is my duty to keep track of anglophone Israel blogs and Jerusalem blogs in particular. Will have to make a definitive survey of them in a later posting.
Pinḥas Ivri 06:32 | (0) comments |

Sunday, May 30, 2004

Shavoua Tov
Happiness is being in a synagogue on Friday evening and hearing Enrico Macias tunes used as niggounim. "Lekha dodi" sung to the tune of "Toi Paris, tu m'as pris dans tes bras", for example.

The crowd there is mostly unorthodox. By that, I mean knit-kippah, and a variety of clothing. Some coloured shirts. Some suits in colours besides black. Very few hats. Not necessarily a bad thing, just different from the synagogue across the street, where the Borsalinos and Barbisios and Fersters are towering high: they are on the heads of serious guys who are either in yeshivah or kollel. There are some knit kippoth, but they are not the majority.

In mine, a rav gives a drashah [sermon]. The women, probably feeling like they are in a separate building, talk loudly. They are in a balcony which can be seen (and heard) clearly from below, save for a little bit of mesh cloth that shields them from prying eyes, except when the cloth is pulled aside. They pull it aside quite often between prayers. One of the men-in-charge in the synagogue hollers at them to keep the noise down. Even when the rav is speaking he does this.

In the synagogue across the street, there is the same balcony but a different crowd. Maybe there are fewer women. Or maybe there are just as many -- one cannot see through the mesh cloth as well. Anyway, they aren't talking as much. Neither are the men. Several rabbanim are in charge in this synagogue, not simply ba'alei battim (heads of household). Serious.

But there in the serious synagogue, their niggounim are practically nonexistent. They have a good, long drashah, but they skip reading Shir HaShirim (The "Song of Songs", or "Song of Solomon"), and they skip most of Kabbalath Shabbath. "Lekha Dodi" is dispensed with in quick order with niggoun consisting of one phrase, repeated 40 times (literally -- I just counted).

I have attended other heavy-black-hat-populated synagogues in other communities, and the same niggoun is used there as well. And the same readings are skipped. It's as if it is part of their union contract. Serious synagogue: more black, more rabbanim, but a quick tefillah.

Yet both synagogues are for Sepharadim and Edoth HaMizra'h. I am not even comparing Ashkenazim and Sepharadim. Both synagogues are using the same siddourim, even.

In the synagogue I'm attending, the man leading prayers for Arvith is a wonderful 'hazzan, a cantor who sings kaddish to another Enrio Macias tune, "Adieu mon pays". He's wearing a white shirt, untucked, and grey slacks. A white knit kippah, certainly not a hat. Many of the men don't know to stand up (this is the one kaddish in the week for which we stand up). Okay, I'll say it: amei ha-arets. Traditionalists.

Raou banim et gevuratho is also sung faboulously. The crowd gets into it, as with the other prayers.

And they do it all, from "Shir HaShirim" to "Lekhu Nerananah" to "Yigdal", singing all the way, enthusiastically. And that's where I choose to pray.
Pinḥas Ivri 00:12 | (0) comments |

Thursday, May 27, 2004

I don't miss "yontiff". That's one thing about leaving the American Jewish world that I am happy about. Of course, I also have to get far, far away from my predominantly English-speaking yeshivah neighbourhood to avoid it.

In Givath Mordekhai, the little corner of Jerusalem where I just spent Shavouoth, the greeting is "'Hag Saméa'h" (or "Chag Saméach" for those of you who aren't yet used to my spelling conventions). Or "Moadim leSim'hah".

"Yontiff" is a derivation of "gut yomtov" (I don't know if there should be an umlaut there or not), which is itself the Yiddish expression for "Have a Good Holiday", a yom tov being a holiday in Hebrew. Got that?

The first time I heard Dov Shurin on the radio (on his English-speaking programme on Radio MiKol Ha Lév), he was saying that he didn't like people to wish him Pass. "You should have pas", the blessing goes. "I don't want pas," he complained. "That's what I left America to get away from. Because here in Israel, they have a different word for it."

What's the English-speaking greeting for Pessa'h?
What's the English-speaking greeting for 'Hanouca?
How about Rosh Hashanah, the new year?
You mean, not shanah tovah ["a good year"]?
No, it's YONtiff.

I experience a certain amount of schadenfreude each time I have a one-day holiday while my friends at yeshivah are enjoying two. Today, for example. Okay, so I had to put on tefillin, but that hardly makes the day more difficult. They have to go two days without a shower. And if their two-day holiday ends up on Friday, that's three days without a shower.

Still, I am sure there are plenty of folks who began their commitment to the Land of Israel recently, and who had their first one-day holiday yesterday. Welcome and congratulations.

Shavouoth has a few customs: Torah study, a dairy meal, decorations with flowers. The first because this is the date of the gift of the Torah at Mount Sinai. The second for various reasons, such as the difficulty of observing kashrouth laws at a moment's notice (yet there must be a better reason than that -- things didn't just happen so haphazardly with Divine guidance in the desert). The third because it is primarily a harvest holiday. In fact, that is the only way the 'Houmash (written Torah) refers to it. Yet the agricultural aspect seems to have faded to the background, compared to the celebration of the Gift of Torah.

There is a custom, in fact, to stay up all night without sleep, studying Torah (no, I did not say "learning", but "studying") until the sunrise. This practice is referred to a tikkoun, a repair for the mistake of Am Yisrael [the people of Israel] sleeping on the morning of the first Shavouoth, in the desert just seven weeks out of Egypt.

Because they were lazy, right? Or unaware of the importance of Torah knowledge in its entirety that was about to be revealed to them? Or because this was the first time it had happened, and they didn't realise it was going to happen?

Is this what have we been thinking all along? That sounds about right, for a goyish understanding of the Jews of the Tanakh: those clumsy "children of Israel", always bumping around through history, getting themselves into one legal bind after another. (Did you know that That Other Religion considers it an unfortunate mistake that bnei Yisrael got themselves into by accepting the Law, which of course they oppose to Grace?)

For the first time this year, I heard the best explanation. Rav Pinchas Winston, of Telzstone, quotes the following pesoukim [verses]:
To the prophets among you when I appear I reveal Myself only in a vision, and speak in a dream. Not so with My servant Moshe, who is the most trusted in all My house. With him I speak face-to-face, while he is conscious, and not in riddles; he has a true vision of G-d. (Bamidbar 12:6-8)

And he explains, in the name of Rav Dessler, that "the Jewish people had specifically gone to sleep the night before in advance of the giving of the Torah, SPECIFICALLY to receive It the next morning. They had every reason to assume that was the way to do it, and Moshe Rabbeinu had every reason to assume that they were correct in their assumption."

So we weren't so clumsy after all.
Pinḥas Ivri 16:21 | (0) comments |

Sunday, May 09, 2004

Lag ba'Omer
Photos Blogged tonight from Jerusalem

Family bonfire below Bayith VeGan (Shalom Hotel in background)

Yeshivath Hevron, Givath Mordekhai

Pinḥas Ivri 01:04 | (0) comments |

Tuesday, April 27, 2004

A brief anti-frumspeak rant
Pinḥas Ivri 17:29 | (0) comments |

Thursday, April 22, 2004

A quick tour of Israel
Caught up in this issue about the dates and the importance of national observances, I have neglected to continue my story about discovering Israel last summer.

Tuesday 10 June 2003
A few members of the Simone family (my hosts, who were family of Atlanta friends) took a free day from work in order to show me some of Erets Yisrael. We took a trip to the city of Teveria and the Yam Kinnereth [Sea of Galilee] in the Galil. Teveria (a.k.a. Tiberias) is an ancient city, one that has traces of cultural vestiges from Israel and Rome dating back a couple of millenia. As I sit here in April, well adjusted to the time zone and many of the sights I have seen in the country so far, I wish that we had spent a bit more time on the historical sites. At the time, though, the easiest and most obvious thing to do was to go to the seashore and take a boat ride.

The bus that we rode to travel up north, chosen by my hosts, took a route through the West Bank because it's shorter than going the Mediterranean coastal route. And it was the most bizarre landscape I'd seen yet in my life: Kilometre after kilometre of desert land, Bedouin camps, and gutted cars parked at the bottoms of ravines. The word "craggly" often came to mind (it's a perfectly cromulent word). Our bus had double windows to protect against the eventual gunfire from bored and apparently malcontent Bedouins sitting in their roadside camps, waiting for a Jewish vehicle (like an Egged bus) to come along. I was assured that such shooting normally only happens at night. Comforting.

We rented a little motor boat for half an hour. Somehow I was put in charge of captaining it. The wind and waves were pretty fierce, and we were increasingly tossed around as we got out to the centre of the sea. When we began to get sprayed and when the water began to splash over the side, I began to get nervous. At this point some of you can laugh at my landlubber naïveté. To that I answer: you try it.

And thanks to the wind, I lost my kippah. It was even clipped down with those metal things that girls use to hold their hair up and that kippah-wearing Jews have introduced into men's fashion. A short moment later one of the children got a phone call from Mrs. Simone asking us how we were doing, and reminding the boys to watch out for their kippah, since this incident had occured the last time. Oh well. I would have to go for a while without.

This was my opportunity to do teshouva. I learned that just as the Orthodox here wear black kippoth, they do not wear clips on their kippoth. Clips are for those who haven't yet learned to keep them on. And this experience showed that, when you really need them, they don't help anyway. They're just ugly. Often, the Orthodox also wear effeminate velvet kippoth, since theirs is an indoor religion. I still didn't change the style. And even though I later got one of those effeminate velvet kippoth for rank-and-file occasions, I still proudly sport a black serougah [knit] job for everyday wear.

After getting out of the sea, we walked for a while, I with peyoth [sidelocks] but no head covering, and embarrassed to say the least. But it's not as if anyone there knew me. In a clothing store I bought a sporty cap that screamed "American!" Any hope I had of passing off as a suave Israeli-born sabra was lost. The novelty of this Fila cap was that it unzipped to form a bare-headed visor: or, alternatively, a kippah as you can see in this photo.

On the way back I learned the meaning of the word Pigoua -- terrorist attack. There had been a bus bombing in Jerusalem. At 5:30p.m., a Palestinian disguised as a 'hassid boarded a 14A bus in front of the Binyan Klal, waited for the bus to roll away for a moment, and then detonated the bomb he was carrying on his body. Seventeen people -- eleven women and six men -- were killed and over 100 wounded. Though we did not learn the details until later, a woman received a call on her bus as we were returning to Jerusalem that afternoon. I tried to call my family, taking the advice of a Rav who said to get in touch with one's family before they see something on CNN. But the telephone numbers I had for using a calling card did not work from the Simone's portable phone. They would have to call me, or wait until I came back.

Of course, I was greeted by desperate e-mail demanding to know my whereabouts. That's when I had to do the damage control. Nothing like the families who lost their loved ones, of course.

So this is what it's like to live in Israel. Those are the thoughts that sank in the next day. Jews in galouth [outside of the country] hear about terrorist attacks every time they happen. But rarely do they see the aftereffects.

Changing the subject. I got out of Har Nof again the next morning to explore Jerusalem, taking the bus this time. At the bus stop I met a nice, elderly French couple. It was wonderful to find such familiarity. Someone was shouting a question to them from across the street, and the man would simply answer with "Ani lo shomea" [I can't hear]. He could hear, but his Hebrew wasn't too good. And he didn't appreciate someone shouting at him from across the street, making the assumption that he was equipped for a conversation in that language. "Pour parler en hébreu il faut montrer qu'on sait parler," he said, or something like that. Before someone speaks to you in Hebrew, they should see that you do speak the language.

As I strolled down Yaffo street again, I stopped again at Mokafé and ordered something more reasonable than an americano, since that hadn't worked out the day before: a double espresso. But the barista remembered me and, with a gleam in his eye, said something to the effect of, "I know what you want!" And made me the same thing he did yesterday. Another reminder that I'm going to have to learn to speak Hebrew.

A bit further down the street, looking for lunch, I came across a crowded bus stop. But this stop was not operational today; its seats were charred, and on them were set numerous burning candles, bouquets of flowers, and books of Tehillim [Psalms]. A debate was going on between an Arabic woman and several Jews over whether the former wanted "shalom". When you can't understand the language, you pick out the words you hear repeated most. I'm not sure what the Arabic wonan's case was, but I doubt she presented it in such a way that it was accepted. A Jewish man, injured, was sitting in a wheelchair in front of the bus stop, making big gestures of reading a newspaper that had a photo of him inside. Maybe he was one of the survivors? He was getting a lot of attention, and his photo was taken many times by journalists. Would the scene repeat itself the next day? Was he showing that he was proud to be back in the place where he had almost died the previous afternoon? I could only conjecture.

At a makholeth on Yaffo I picked up a copy of that day's Jerusalem Post, the only newspaper I could find in English, and took it to Sbarro where I would read it while trying to eat lunch. I say "trying" not just because of the quality of the food (boring, lukewarm). I was reading that sixteen people had died in this terrorist attack, and was sitting behind the large windows that give a great view of Yaffo street, just a few blocks down from where the bus had exploded. By going to Sbarro, I had imagined that I was showing solidarity with the Israelis, knowing that this restaurant had been bombed and rebuilt twice already.

Suicide bomber kills 16 in Jerusalem read the headline. And below it: Hamas terrorist disguised as haredi.

Not a good idea for lunchtime reading. I choked up upon reading accounts of body parts flying through the air, and people "burned like torches".

Quite interesting still was the statement by Jerusalem police chief Commander Mickey Levy that, "last year alone, 11 suicide bombers were apprehended on their way to Jerusalem". They just keep trying. Unfortunately, a few get through.

For the next few weeks, I could not walk on a sidewalk and see a bus on the street without imagining what it would be like to see it explode. What it would look like to see the shrapnel flying outward and toward me. I would have the ridiculous question in my mind, as if it were in a movie, whether I would be quick enough to duck when I saw the explosion occur. As if that would help. Would I be thrown against the next wall, or hit directly by the debris? And of course, I imagine the same thing while riding buses. What if the explosion occurs in the other half? What if the terrorist is standing in the soft, accordion walls of the middle of the bus? And would I know how to recognise a terrorist were he to board? And if so, what would I do?

Mostly, on the sidewalks, I would just envision debris flying outward, from any bus that I saw. But having worked through the above hypothetical cases, I wouldn't hesitate to travel on Egged. My friends would rather walk from one end of Jerusalem to another, or limit their travel to taxis, or just not get out much. But I did not see any way to avoid it. Those methods can hardly be effective.

A full treatment of the pigoua, with photos, can be found on the Israel Foreign Ministry's site. Photos of the victims nearly bring me to tears, even today, over ten months after the incident. And my mood is not much better today, reflecting back on it, as I casually survey the variety of attitudes concerning Israel's upcoming "holidays". (You don' t see the connexion? That's why I just attribute it my mood.) It was not the last time to happen, unfortunately, even as this blog has chronicled already.

HaShem yikom damam.

I'm tacking on this note a few days later from the writing of this posting. I was alerted that my unflattering mention of the Yaffo-street Sbarro's food could be considered lashon hara, slander, and could concievably do damage to the restaurant's business, and could thus be a no-no. I countered that that's what a restaurant review is, and that if their food is consistently disappointing (which it has been), people should be told so. But I was told that restaurant reviews can still be lashon hara.

The solution to this matter is that I must specify that the only Sbarro I have eaten in here is the one on Yaffo street. And that it is now closed and being retooled as a bakery for the Ne'eman chain, who have restaurants in Center One -- good restaurants, I might add.

Pinḥas Ivri 10:50 | (0) comments |

Sunday, April 18, 2004

Apostrophe's: They're not just for Americans to misuse

Here is an oldie from Dave Barry.

Dear Mister Language Person: What is the purpose of the apostrophe?

Answer: The apostrophe is used mainly in hand-lettered small business signs to alert the reader than an "S" is coming up at the end of a word, as in: WE DO NOT EXCEPT PERSONAL CHECK'S, or: NOT RESPONSIBLE FOR ANY ITEM'S. Another important grammar concept to bear in mind when creating hand- lettered small-business signs is that you should put quotation marks around random words for decoration, as in "TRY" OUR HOT DOG'S, or even TRY "OUR" HOT DOG'S.

Even top professional writers have trouble with apostrophes, which is why it is important to remember the Three Rules For When To Use Apostrophe's:

Example: "This childbirth really hurt's!''

Example: "There's snake's in the Nut 'n' Honey!''

Example: "Dear Moron's:''

Thus quoth Dave Barry, © The Miami Herald.

Here in Israel, there is an additional use: to translate the word "shel" (shin lamed), which is a preposition traditionally used to indicate the genetive.

In another quirk of Hebrew, in an expression using two juxtaposed nouns, "shel" can also be replaced with the construct form of the first noun. This is called semikhouth in Hebrew. You should find a way to use an apostrophe if translating from this kind of expression, too.

The most important thing for Israelis to remember when translating from Hebrew into English is that you need never ask help from native English speakers. Never mind that they could spot-correct mistakes in three seconds. You studied enough English in school, and you're a sabra, dammit! It would be a grave embarrassment to ask for help. You should, by all means, go ahead and print road signs, shirts, or the name of your business, based on your high-school knowledge of English. You gotta save face.
Pinḥas Ivri 17:52 | (0) comments |