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:

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Faffing is moreish

Sometimes, being an American transplanted to Israel can generate a real culture swap - but not always from the expected sources.

I was just eating a bowl of really yummy Israeli cereal called Kinamonim, which is basically whole wheat squares covered in cinnamon and is much tastier (and probably healthier, though I haven't checked) than the American Cinnamon Toast Crunch, and thought, "Wow, this stuff is really moreish."

And then I thought back to my unenlightened days as a blissfully ignorant American in America, when - I can hardly believe it - I didn't have such a key word in my vocabulary. As you've probably already guessed, "moreish" (as in "more-ish") is what you say about a food that makes you want more of it - at least if you're British. It's kind of like the "you can't eat just one" potato chip slogan, condensed into a single versatile word - without the negative associations and just plain unoriginality of the American English equivalent, "addictive."

Another indispensable word I learned from my British former roommate that we both found ourselves using to describe our activities at pretty much any given moment is "faffing" - to "dither, futz, diddle, potter about uselessly," as this site has it. Faffing (also "faffing about," in British, which translates into "faffing around" in American) seems to be the British cousin of "futzing around," at least the way my father always used the phrase - as in, and I quote, "Stop futzing around already and get in the car!" It's also related to procrastination (a particular talent of mine), but without even requiring a task just calling out to be put off.

The thing is, even though I found "futzing" and "futzing around" on Urban Dictionary and listed as slang on other dictionary sites, the only person I can remember hearing use the word is my father, which signals that at least in my circles, it wasn't exactly popular slang. Also, I was frankly never actually sure it was a real word, especially since its Yiddish sound (though the actual derivation appears to be a bit murky - see this and this for two possibilities) seemed a bit weird coming from my Sephardi father, for whom Yiddish words and American slang are not really high on the vocabulary list.

Faffing, on the other hand, appears to be quite a popular activity among the British, making me feel at last that I am not alone.

Go here to read the recipe, which I haven't tried, for the moreish-looking cookies pictured above.


Thursday, June 14, 2007

Catching the wrong fish

Herewith, a note of caution: Just when you've been thinking about the rather ridiculous necessity of reading Hebrew in English, along comes a Hebrew word practically screaming to be read in English. But – what the hell? – it turns out the Israeli writer was actually speaking the language of the Hebrewman!

I was translating a news brief about the Australian movie "Jindabyne," which is going to be playing in Israel as part of an Australian film festival here over the summer.

The reporter wrote that the film was about four men who find a dead body during a מסע דיג (without vowels, the second word would read something like DYG). The phrase should, of course, be read as "masa dayig," meaning "fishing trip" – but at first glance, what jumped out at me was the English word "dig" (or "deeeg," in Israeli). In those first few seconds, I imagined four college-age guys spending their summer on an archeological dig looking for old coins – but turning up a much more (cue scary voice) sinister find. I mean come on, that could totally be a movie! It all made perfect sense.

Fortunately, though, I got a good grip on the rod of reality and realized my mistake before I fell for that old decoy trick – hook, line and sinker.


Thursday, June 7, 2007

Driving me to drink

My brother-in-law Yaakov has unwittingly resolved a minor mystery that has plagued me since I moved to Israel. For years I have seen stickers on car windows that say "טסט ליין" (which, given the vowel-lessness of Hebrew, transliterates roughly into "TST LYYN") and had absolutely no idea what it meant.

Although it could have passed as a bumper sticker, it didn't convey any political message that I could discern, and moreover, I wasn't even sure how to read the sticker in the first place. Since the first word is not actually a word in Hebrew as far as I know, I figured it must be English, but I was tripped up by the second word, which - even though it is written in Hebrew letters, constitutes a Hebrew word and appears all over Israel - I was dimwitted enough to actually read in Hebrew.

This left me reading the second word as "leyayin" ("for wine"), and given that context, I could only surmise that the first word was an Israeli rendering of the English word "taste." And so I reached the uneasy conclusion that the car owners with the sticker on the window were basically telling the world that they had a taste for wine.

I was a bit uncomfortable with this reading of the text, in part because, well, what kind of a statement is "taste for wine"? It's a lot more vague and a lot less fitting to pithy bumper sticker style than more formulaic messages like "I love wine" or "I'd rather be drinking." And why did the number of Israeli car owners seemingly advertising their taste for wine seem to exceed the number of Israelis who have actually developed a taste for wine?

More than that, though, the logo of the sticker - a kind of jagged line with peaks and valleys, like the results of a polygraph test (at least when shown on cop shows on TV) - really didn't seem to have anything to do with wine. I mean sure, I could make something up - the peaks represent the good wines and the valleys represent kiddush wine, for instance - but it wasn't exactly an instantly recognizable symbol of wine, like the bottle or glass you might expect if the sticker was really about a taste for wine.

And finally, I was pretty sure that "taste" would more likely be rendered into Hebrew as "טייסט," but the vagaries of transliteration are such that people can write a word from another language pretty much however they want. (It may come as no surprise that Israelis have yet to come up with a uniform transliteration for a word that appears in the newspaper daily: Palestinians. But that's another story.)

For all my hesitations, though, I couldn't come up with a better option that made any sense to me, and settled on "taste for wine" until I found a more fitting solution to the puzzle. Of course, I suppose I could have asked an Israeli, but this was one of those things that occupied my thoughts for the few seconds I caught sight of yet another of those stickers and flitted out of my head again as the car left my field of vision.

But then along came Yaakov, who wrote this blog on vehicle inspection, which happens to be held at a place called (drum roll, please) Test Line - spelled, yes, טסט ליין

When I read this, discovering in the process that my ignorance was a hitherto unforeseen disadvantage of my pedestrian lifestyle, the asimon finally dropped. (The phrase harks back to the days when Israelis used asimonim, metal tokens with holes in the middle, to make calls on pay phones.) It all seems so obvious now that the longstanding mystery threatening to drive me to drink has been resolved at long last.

Next time, at least, I'll hopefully know better than to read Hebrew signs in (gasp!) Hebrew.