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:

Monday, April 30, 2007

A 'vegetarian response'

I discovered last week that there is a linguistic corollary to the Israeli view that grilling meat on a traffic island is the highest form of patriotic activity.

In an article that appeared in the Week’s End section of Haaretz on Friday, Akiva Eldar wrote, in Hebrew, that a particular professor was critical of Israel's "תגובה צמחונית" - literally, its "vegetarian (tzimchoni) response" - to Qassam fire from Gaza in the wake of the disengagement.

I surmised that Eldar was not trying to say that the Israeli army should have been launching meatball missiles into Gaza - since we all know that those veggie burgers just don't hit the spot - and looked up "tzimchoni" in Morfix, a very useful online Hebrew-English dictionary. Here is what the dictionary had to say:

Tzimchoni (adj.): vegetarian; (colloquial) moderate, compromising.

In other words, Israelis are implying, refraining from eating meat is no legitimate lifestyle choice. It signals that the abstemious have compromised on the nutritional basics by inappropriately moderating their intake. No full-blooded eaters, they.

Or, as an Israeli cousin of mine - whose hard liquor of choice is grape juice, by the way - told my husband Warren in a faux-understanding way when he refused a shot of Arak: "Oh, of course - you're a vegetarian."

The truth is, I don't altogether disagree with the Israeli take on these champions of chicken rights, and I have certainly had enough meatless so-called chulent to last me a lifetime and a half.

But the most striking, and amusing, part of all this is that the vegetarian family I married into (well, Warren and his dad) are anything but moderate and compromising. Indeed, the definition is so inapt when applied to them - and they are so insulted by it - that I cannot but give in to the urge to rub kashering salt in their wounds.

Warren thinks that corrupt politicians should be put in the stocks in Rabin Square in Tel Aviv so the public can throw eggs at them, although he wouldn't be too upset if someone happened to shoot them on sight. And he thinks gray areas are something those damn liberals made up to compensate for their lack of gray cells. As for his father, well, there are probably more Capetonians whom he refuses to speak to on principle than there are Capetonians actually living in Cape Town.

The truth of the matter is, I married a fanatic the son of a fanatic. And both are zealous vegetarians – although if they did eat meat, they would surely be crusading cow-consumers.

Warren isn't so happy with his recent wife-aided discovery of the colloquial meaning of tzimchoni. In fact, being the compromising moderate that he is, he has decided that Morfix must be run by "a bunch of subversive leftist pinko commies."

All I know is that I'm going to be milking this definition for all it's worth.


Monday, April 23, 2007

The great equalizer?

The Associated Press reported yesterday that a Virginia Tech freshman who had just returned home after last week’s shooting rampage on campus was killed in a car crash Friday. As the Yom Hazikaron (Israeli Memorial Day) siren is about to go off to commemorate soldiers killed in Israel’s wars as well as terror victims, such reports drive home once more the hard truth that death is not, after all, the great equalizer.

Would AP have bothered to report that a Virginia Tech freshman died in a car crash had his campus not recently been the site of a shooting? Obviously not. There’s that call of (perceived) irony that we the media can’t resist - to the extent that, on the other side of the notebook, I started getting excessively paranoid about dying in a terror attack in the weeks before my wedding, because the news reports at the time made it seem that just about every terror victim had been about to get married, just as every soldier killed in combat seemed to be on the verge of finishing his army service. (Back on the media side not long after, I contributed to the general impression by writing this article about a young woman who was indeed killed in a terror attack the night before her wedding.)

And so it is that a mundane car crash becomes a wire story somehow connected to the deadliest shooting rampage in U.S. history. Let’s face it: For all the heartache of the student’s family, from a media perspective, the car accident is not much of a national story - only one victim, and at that, one who’s not a child, a saint or a celebrity. Happens all the time. But somehow, that connection to a larger tragedy - or, more specifically, to the feeling that, Oedipus-like, this student evaded his fate only to encounter it as he attempted to flee - makes the accident (debatably) newsworthy.

I have often thought since moving to Israel during the intifada, when such thoughts were inescapable, that if I had a choice, I would much rather be killed in a terror attack than in a car accident - though my chances of the latter are far higher than my chances of the former. Of course, I hope my family and I live long and healthy lives (ptu ptu ptu), but perhaps this morbid thought is fitting on a day in which we are supposed to think of death.

The families of Israelis killed in terror attacks, as in combat, are afforded a kind of honor and prestige - not to mention the crasser element of financial assistance from the state - that the families of accident victims could never hope for. A family member dying in a car accident is a personal tragedy, while a family member dying in war or by an act of terrorism is a national tragedy. I often think that it must be harder for families of accident victims to deal with their loss because it just seems so pointless, whereas the others can at least comfort themselves with the knowledge that their loved ones sacrificed themselves to some more noble cause than the rehabilitation of a drunk driver.

As the national emotional manipulation machine goes into gear once again - the same slow songs on the radio that they play right after a terror attack, the TV movies about death - I join the country in mourning the loss of the men and women whose early departure from this world is commemorated today. All the same, I can’t help but entertain a sneaking, possibly heretical, sensation that due to the perhaps inevitable value society assigns to some kinds of deaths and not others, their families are - in a way that I certainly do not envy - the lucky ones.

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Monday, April 16, 2007

What a gas!

I discovered today that my landlord has a sense of humor.

It started with my phone call to the evil spawn of the devil, the banchee Oshra, who works for what I have decided is one of the worst companies in Israel (and that's saying a lot): the Dorgas gas company.

The reason I called? Let's see if you can work it out:

Our current gas bill comes to a grand total of NIS 1,660.35 - which is a whopping NIS 1,590 more than our previous three gas bills COMBINED! The bill before the current bloated one came to NIS 17.05, the one before that to NIS 32.02 (no, there are no coins in Israel that amount to less than 5 agorot, so this is actually an impossible number to pay, but that's a whole other story), and the one before that to NIS 21.22.

And no, we did not use gas for heating or for any purpose other than what we've used it for in the three previous billing periods (minimal stovetop cooking).

Now, I'm no mathematical genius, but for some reason I get the feeling that something's rotten in the state of Dorgas - which, by the way, has already shut off our gas twice in the last few months for no reason that the company could explain. Well, actually, the meter-reading guy did give me what I suppose is their version of an explanation for the first gas cutoff: He rang the door of someone else's apartment and they didn't answer him, so he cut off our gas.

And you just know he's gotta be telling the truth because who could possibly make up such a ridiculously irrelevant answer? I would have been happier (and not even particularly surprised) if he had said a street cat ate the meter.

Anyway, despite the gas company's less-than-stellar record when it comes to minor details like providing gas, I began my call by speaking very nicely to the evil spawn of the devil (as I did not yet know her true status). The lovely and soft-spoken Oshra heavily implied that her company plucked a random number out of the air to put on my bill because the cabinet containing the gas meters was apparently locked. When I told her that I didn't have the key and the company should speak to my landlord - to whom the gas bill is addressed, by the way! - she said, 'Well if you won't help me, then I won't help you,' and threatened to shut off my gas, which is apparently the standard practice when Oshra is in a bad mood.

(It turns out that actually the gas meter for our apartment, as opposed to the ones for most of the other ones in the building, is outside the building in a non-locked cabinet. But, not being ready to face another bout with Oshra, I have handed the entire matter over to my lawyer, who also doubles as my husband.)

Anyway, when I ran into my landlord in my building today - after having spoken to him earlier about the gas meter being locked away (or not, as the case may be) - he asked if the gas company was still giving me trouble. I told him about my hushed and civilized conversation with Oshra, and he surprised me by displaying the above-mentioned, heretofore hidden, sense of humor.

Totally straight-faced, he said: "What do you mean? No one shouts in this country!" -
מה פתאום? במדינה הזאת לא צועקים

Funny man, my landlord. Who knew?

Crossposted to Israelity.

No humus here

From Zabaj:

Who needs a red-light district when you can purchase everything at your local felafel stand?

Thursday, April 12, 2007

The Last Supper

How do you say 'odd juxtaposition' in Spanish?

The plate in the above photo says "Pesach" (Passover) in Hebrew. Taken inside a Toledo store selling antiques and objets d'art, this is a sample of the odd juxtaposition of Christian and Jewish (and in many cases, Muslim and/or Middle Eastern) objects that I found throughout Spain.

I was surprised and kind of weirded out to see Jewish stars and menorahs in tourist shops all over the place. While it's true that Christian symbols are being marketed no less than Jewish and Muslim ones, the Christian ones at least have meaning to the people who live there. I found the ubiquity of the Jewish symbols to be startling because this was a country that kicked the Jews out and burned them at the stake, and to this day has little in the way of Jewish life - and yet, has no compunction about commercializing its Jewish past when it had once been so eager to obliterate its Jewish present.

It also seemed that in Spain, the Judaica was nothing but another cheesy tourist memento, like the flamenco-style aprons all over Andalusia shops and the mini knights scattered throughout Toledo. In Spain, the cross is the symbol of a religion that dominates the country; the Jewish star just looks sad and out of place in the Spanish stores, a marketable memory rather than a representation of the living glue that continues to hold a people intact.

Here's another example, also from Toledo:

A few random things I learned on my trip to Spain

In no particular order...

1. Lest you think that synagogues and mosques that are turned into churches are symbols of Catholic domination, rest assured that they are merely indications of multiculturalism.

2. Everyone seems to speak with a lithp in Thpain.

3. Just because narrow roads are paved with cobblestones in that quaint European kinda way doesn't mean a truck isn't gonna come barreling down 'em.

4. If you don't say "eh Sprite" in Seville, the waiter won't know you're trying to order a Sprite.

5. Men can dance flamenco too.

Pix to come...