the 90th minute

Until September 2007, when my oldest daughter was born, this blog covered daily life and politics in Israel, as well as Hebrew-English linguistic issues, from the perspective of an American-raised journalist and translator living in Israel. Now it mostly serves as the SmunchMonk&Bear news agency, a portal into the bizarre universe of the little people. Read more at:

Sunday, December 31, 2006

Press that Shift key

Much has been said – little of it complimentary – about the difficulty Israeli restaurants and businesses seem to have in figuring out how to spell (this article mentions menu wonders like "pee sop" for pea soup and "pie-nipple" for pineapple). But I have recently started noticing a different, though related, problem: funky cAPitaliZation.

Part of the issue is the complete absence of capital letters in the Hebrew language. This weekend, I noticed that while the makers of street signs in the new section of Givat Shmuel, a suburb of Tel Aviv, were capable of making the signs glow in the dark (for real!), they had apparently not yet managed to read through "English Grammar for Dummies."

For instance, take Givat Shmuel's Begin Street. In Hebrew, the road was named, as expected, "מנחם בגין" ("Menachem Begin" minus the caps and the Latin letters). In English, though, the late premier was reduced to "M. begin." Many other prominent Israeli figures were similarly diminished in stature, though their first names tended to come out mangle-free.

While the presence of capital letters appears to pose a pesky problem for sign-makers, their absence sometimes poses difficulties for English speakers trying to decipher the holy language. Take the American of my acquaintance who was working temporarily in Israel when he translated "b'gin" – an Aramaic-cum-lawyerly word meaning "due to" – as the first part of a name beginning "Begin." The two words are spelled the same way in Hebrew, and with just as many capital letters.

Menachem Begin's last name can be at least as confusing in the English transliteration. Despite having lived in Jerusalem for five years, there are still days when I pass by one of the entrances to the city's Begin Boulevard - this country hasn't had that many prime ministers, so the names of the ones we have had tend to be spread pretty thin - and misread the English sign saying, "Begin North."

But let's return to complaining about Israeli capitalization. Givat Shmuel's sign-makers are not the only ones who seem to have missed the lesson imparting the extraordinarily complicated concept that proper nouns should be capitalized.

Those who ought to know better include the university student union (and yes, they have strikes and everything – who said socialism was dead?), which its Web site declares is officially called the "National union of Israeli students." In my more insane moments I almost want to pat them on the back and say, "Good job on capitalizing 'National' AND 'Israeli'! I mean, 'Israeli' wasn't even the first word!"

But then I think, "Um, does getting into college here require finishing elementary school?" Because they just might want to Begin again.


Thursday, December 21, 2006

Eggplants, peppers and beaded jewelry

Yay, my article on the new, trendy face of Jerusalem's Mahaneh Yehuda market just came out! Read it here.

You can also check out a video of a Friday morning at the market, by Dave Bender, here.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

El Al's secret code

I’ve passed it countless times before, but on my way back from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem today, the huge El Al ad plastered on the wall of a building at the main entrance to the capital caught my eye anew. It’s completely cheesy and maybe even a bit sacrilegious, but there’s something about how it embodies Israeli chutzpah that appeals to the over-analyzer in me.

The ad depicts a plane flying through a perfectly blue sky, so close to the Western Wall that in real life, fighter jets would have been scrambled to see what the hell that pilot was doing. Something about how the ad is on a wall made of Jerusalem stone and how the Western Wall is, of course, also made of stone almost makes it seem like the scene really is right in front of you – especially if you’ve spent most of the ride asleep and you’re in a kind of squinty-eyed haze as the bus rolls into town.

There are two other elements that make this ad stand out in my mind:

- The tacky use of an overexposed religious symbol for crass commercial gain, in a way that reminds me of my parents’ wedding album from the '70s, in which the photographer made even tackier use of the selfsame overexposed religious symbol by superimposing my parents on the Kotel even though they got married in Queens.

(This tactic of El Al’s, by the way, does not seem to have had any effect on the Haredim who only want to patronize airlines that fly on Shabbat as long as the airlines are not named El Al.)

- The dual message for Israelis and for tourists. In English, on the central portion of the ad, it says, “El Al – It’s not just an airline, it’s Israel.” On the bottom of the ad, below the picture, it says in Hebrew, “El Al is bringing tourism back to Israel” - "אל על מחזירה את התיירות לישראל."

The English tagline is fully comprehensible and meshes with the visual message, in which El Al, apparently, hopes that the next time people think of the Western Wall they will automatically think of El Al as well and book a ticket.

The second, Hebrew message – and the fact that there is one in the first place – is what really makes me stop and think (and not just because of the traffic that almost inevitably clogs the main entrance to Jerusalem - right in front of the ad, conveniently enough).

I see the Hebrew message as a kind of (not-so-)secret code hidden in plain sight, one that makes reference to the ad almost as though it weren’t part of it. The English message targets tourists, but the Hebrew message doesn’t really target Israelis so much as it explains the ad to the local audience. “You see?” it says. “We’re not just a company; we’re your source of rich Americans. See above.”

I think that what ultimately strikes me most about the ad is that El Al’s secret code, like many Israelis, seems to simultaneously welcome tourists – and their money, of course - while talking about them behind their backs and assuming they won’t understand.

The concept raises all kinds of possibilities for unexpected (if not entirely straightforward) honesty. Maybe the downtown Jerusalem store with the English sign saying "Welcome brave tourists" should take a lesson from El Al and tack on a Hebrew addendum: “We’ll only charge you twice as much, habibi.”


Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Nukes? What nukes?

Israeli and international media have been feasting this week on Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s achievement of adding a whole new layer of meaning to the concept of nuclear ambiguity.

The policy has long meant that Israel will neither confirm nor deny having nuclear weapons – preferring to harvest the benefits of a deterrence wrought by the rest of the world’s decades-long knowledge of the country’s capabilities while avoiding the pitfalls of possible inspections, censure, sanctions or loss of financial aid. But the recent hullabaloo has, for some, narrowed the focus; the latest ambiguity under discussion is not about Israel's status as a nuclear power but about what, if anything, Olmert intended to say about it.

In a prerecorded interview on German TV that was broadcast Monday, during his visit there, Olmert said that the United States, France, Britain and Russia had nuclear weapons, and were "civilized countries that do not threaten the foundations of the world."

Then came the clincher that has set the media and political hounds growling with excitement: "Iran openly, explicitly and publicly threatens to wipe Israel off the map. Can you say that this is the same level, when they are aspiring to have nuclear weapons, as America, France, Israel, Russia?"

Many interpreted this list as putting Israel in the same league as other nuclear countries, but Olmert’s people said the list was actually one of civilized countries, whose nuclear capability or (wink, wink) lack thereof is incidental to the point he was making. Israeli politicians who would have been happy to see Olmert step down no matter what he said or implied about Israel’s nuclear power called for Olmert to step down because of what he said or implied about Israel’s nuclear power. And some questioned whether the prime minister’s slip of the tongue (which is quite different from the justice minister’s slip of the tongue, but that’s another story entirely) was really an accidental and unfortunate occurrence or whether it was his way of warning Iran.

I found it interesting to see how different media characterized the remarks in their articles on Olmert’s comment: Was it a slip or an admission? Did he announce that Israel has nuclear weapons or appear to imply it?

Some publications, like The New York Times, played it safe, sticking with words like “seem” and “appear.”

A NYT article published Tuesday was headlined, “In a Slip, Israel's Leader Seems to Confirm Its Nuclear Arsenal,” and began by saying: “Israel's prime minister, Ehud Olmert, appeared to acknowledge inadvertently during a TV interview shown Monday that Israel has nuclear weapons, an issue on which the Jewish state has sought to maintain ambiguity for decades.”

Possibly following Olmert’s lead, the Guardian threw caution to the wind in a second-day story published Tuesday on what it called the “nuclear gaffe,” in which it said flat-out that Olmert was under fire for having “accidentally acknowledged for the first time that Israel had nuclear weapons.” Not until the 10th paragraph does the story mention that Olmert’s spokeswoman denied that his comments “mean Israel possessed or wanted to acquire nuclear weapons.”

The most striking set of articles I found came from Reuters, which may or may not have undergone a change of heart in its take on the story.

In a Monday article that appeared on the Washington Post Web site under the headline “Olmert admits Israel has nuclear weapons,” Reuters wrote: “Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, lifting the veil over Israel's policy of nuclear ambiguity, appeared in an interview broadcast on Monday to admit that the Jewish state had atomic weapons.”

As if there were not enough of it going around in this little nuclear contretemps, this sentence suffers from an ambiguity all its own: the word “appeared” can refer to Olmert’s having appeared on TV (as I read it at first) or as a qualifier that – were it not separated by an intervening reference to the broadcast – would read “appeared to admit.”

By Tuesday, though, Reuters had (paradoxically, perhaps) clarified its position by injecting greater uncertainty, writing: “Prime Minister Ehud Olmert triggered a domestic firestorm on Tuesday after publicly implying, in an apparent reversal of a decades-old secrecy policy, that Israel has the Middle East's only nuclear arsenal.” Note the double hedge of “implying” and “apparent” (not “appearing,” this time).

And finally, the reward for best sense of humor goes to The Associated Press, for a piece about the response to Olmert’s comments that was slugged “Israel-Nuclear Fallout.” Kind of scary at first glance, but, hey, it made me laugh.

Crossposted to Israelity.

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Monday, December 11, 2006

You know you've been in Israel too long (Part 2) when...

... You pass a newly completed monument to who-knows-what and your first thought is: I wonder how many votes the contractor who built that promised to get for the politician who handed him that gig.

Wednesday, December 6, 2006

You know you've been in Israel too long when...

...Your husband, who has apparently gone off the deep end, thinks it would be a good idea if you threw out all the notes you've assiduously kept for every story you've ever written in Israel, and you compromise on going through (note: not necessarily throwing out) all the loose papers and PR pamphlets that have accumulated over the years - but, knowing you will probably never see eye to eye on the rapidly growing pile of notebooks, you delicately suggest that the notebook issue be left for "final-status negotiations."

Monday, December 4, 2006

Between a rock and a hard place

The escape of convicted serial rapist Benny Sela appears to have struck fear in the hearts of Israeli women and profit in the stores that sell pepper spray.

As for me, I have been trying to decide which I should be more worried about: the prospect of members of our illustrious police force being complicit in Sela’s escape or the prospect of members of our illustrious police force being even more inept than I had imagined.

I’m leaning toward Option B being scarier and Option A being more likely, partly because there are just way, way too many coincidences in his escape for me to accept them at face value and partly because I prefer the less scary option.

The following is what happened, as best as I can glean from the Israeli media:

The prison service mysteriously received a notice for Sela to appear at the Tel Aviv labor court on a Friday (that would be a week ago last Friday – what, you thought this was a tiny country?), even though there are no hearings there on Friday. The prison guards let him out and sent him with a police escort that the Tel Aviv police chief said did not meet the standard for someone of Sela’s risk level, even though the prison service had been alerted that Sela was trying to find ways to break out. He was handcuffed only on his hands and the cuffs were not locked. While the police escort stopped at another courthouse, Sela got out of the police car and climbed over a wall in the court compound. The only person who noticed this was another prisoner. When the police escort finally worked out that their escortee was missing, they waited around for a sentry to unlock the gate before starting to look for Sela. When he escaped he was only wearing half a prison uniform (brown pants), making it easier for him to blend in with everyone else. He found it even easier to blend in when he magically discovered a pair of jeans in a park right near the courthouse he escaped from, and changed into them there (the prison pants, but no Benny Sela, were found a short time after the escape).

I mean, need I say more? In this kind of situation, I can only hope that there was a conspiracy involved, because the alternative is really just too frightening to face.