Thursday, January 22, 2009

To the women and men of St. Louis

I was just informed that Hannah Chervitz's grandmother (sorry, she didn't mention your name) and perhaps other members of the St. Louis Ethical Society an/or the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom were among my readers, so I'd like to devote this post to them.

Now my own grandparents spoke Yiddish. Sure, they also spoke Hebrew (at least the three I got to know, but I assume the fourth, who died in Jerusalem in 1941 also at least dabbled in it). They were also fluent in Russian on one side and Polish on the other. And there is some evidence that German, Romanian and English were also within their collective repertoire.

I never really cared for the Slavic languages they spoke. Of course, this was before I became a professional linguist. But with Yiddish I had sort of a love-hate relationship. I was never taught the language. Moreover, I was socialized to believe that I shouldn't know it. It may have been my paranoia, but apart from terms of endearment, such as ingale 'boy', ziser bukher 'sweet guy' and royte bekalakh 'red cheeks' (of course they're red, grandma; you just pinched them with all your might!), I felt that Yiddish was only spoken around me as a secret language. Only grownups (and not even all grownups) could speak and understand it. Being the smartass – or uberxuxem - that I was, in hindsight I would have expected myself to force myself to learn it and be my own little intelligence agency. But I guess I was too lazy. And too pissed. You don't want me to understand? Well I don't wanna understand you anyway!

Years later, when I only had one living grandparent left, I decided to take interest in Yiddish. I audited a Yiddish class at Penn, and in a dialectology class with Bill Labov, Hannah and I did a little research project based on Weinreich et al.'s Language and Culture Atlas of Ashkenazic Jewry (there was no serious web site then; we used the actual hard copy). I then presented it and a version of it was published by the Berkeley Linguistics Society. I remember my father not quite understanding how I could write a paper about a language I didn't really speak. And my grandmother was already in her last days, so I never really got to speak any Yiddish with her. Not that I can hold conversation in it really.

Hannah's note to me about her grandmother reminded me of my "missed opportunity" to learn a language. It was also timely, because on Sunday I'll be visiting the National Museum of Language in College Park, MD, where Miriam Isaacs will be speaking about "[her] story with Yiddish." 

Nine wise people?

I am referring to the nine (or in one case eight) Israeli Supreme Court justices who overturned the decision to ban two predominantly Palestinian parties from running in the February 10 elections.

In a previous post, I joined many others in commenting that "[g]iven its track record, it is likely (though there is no guarantee) that Israel's supreme court will overturn the decision of the highly politicized Central Elections Committee." I am somewhat relieved that the court had the wisdom to do so, but it is not healthy for an alleged democracy to rely on appointed officials to "do the right thing." In fact, it is one of the factors that leads a democracy to being merely an "alleged" one...
I have pretty much hashed this issue in my January 12 post, so I'll leave it at that. It was just important for me to post an update today.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Two and half films

Despite the war and the need to protest, and before traveling to Jordan, I had a few opportunities to spend some quality time with my mother. That usually means driving her to the doctor (and in one case, the ER; she’s all right now), going with her to IKEA – and other furniture stores – and an occasional trip to the movies. If memory serves me right, we saw three films. The first was a new Israeli feature called hakol matxil bayam ‘It All Begins at Sea.’ It is a tender family drama, which could have been set anywhere in the world really, except it is set in Ashkelon, one of the cities at which – a day or two after we saw the film – Hamas began aiming some of its rockets in retaliation for the criminal acts of the Israeli government. I actually remember the chills I felt when they announced these firings on the news. Ashkelon has usually been a quiet town, far from the spotlights, and here I was, within days, watching a movie set there and then hearing about it on the news.

But I really wanted to write about two other films we saw in Tel Aviv. One of them I had wanted to see as soon as I saw the previews for it at one of the Ritz theaters in Philadelphia. The original title is Entre les murs ‘Between the Walls’, though in English it’s distributed as The Class. The second is an American film called The Visitor.

I knew much more about the premise of the French film than about the American one. It’s set in an inner-city Paris school, in which immigrants and offspring of immigrants outnumber ethnic French kids. It follows their homeroom and French teacher, an attractive thirty-something single guy (of course both the students and yours truly wondered whether he was gay; I won’t spoil it for you with an answer to that question), who was not really trained or mentally prepared for such a diverse – and critical – audience. What I didn’t know about The Visitor was that it, too, revolved around a teacher, or rather a professor in a small college, and that there was some (a lot, in fact) of Middle Eastern content in it.

So both Entre les murs and The Visitor turned out to be very relevant to my own life. And while the protagonists of both films were very different from one another, I couldn’t help but finding bits and pieces of myself in both of them.

At first glance, Entre les murs promises to be yet another To Sir, with Love or Lean on Me. I, however, was relieved to see very little trace of Sidney Poitier or Morgan Freeman in the character of François (actor/co-writer François Bégaudeau). I have nothing against either of the two educational maverick precursor movies, but To Sir is a classic that was good for its time and place, and one Lean was enough. What we see in Entre is the real deal. My mother commented after the credits were over – virtually all the characters share the first names of their respective actors – that it was almost a documentary. We’ve all heard about racial and ethnic tensions in Western Europe, but few of us – in Israel or the US – have had the chance to be the flies on the walls of these tense communities. Entre allowed us a shot at that.

Entre also “keeps it real” by depicting a non-heroic teacher. Some kids like and respect him; others hate his guts; many others couldn’t give a damn. He’s intelligent, has good instincts and responds with wit and respect to his students’ mischief and skepticism, but also gets himself and others in trouble doing the clumsy things that most of us might easily find ourselves doing under pressure. Watching him, I kept waiting for the magic moment in which he’d shine in all his glory and win the proverbial Teacher-of-the-year trophy, but was delighted never to witness such a development.

The Visitor is perhaps a bit more complex. Just this week I had brief discussions about it with two colleagues. With Susan Dicklitch, who teaches a course at F&M titled Human Rights/Human Wrongs, dealing extensively with the issue of political asylum, the title of the movie came up, since it, too, has asylum at its core (or one of its cores). Alan Caniglia, who is a senior associate dean of the faculty at F&M, brought the movie up while we were riding a van from a workshop we attended last weekend at Gettysburg College. The focus of the discussion with him was the personality of the professor (played exquisitely by Richard Jenkins of Six Feet Under fame; he was the dead father).

One of the opening scenes reminded me how ridiculous we can be with all our rules and regulations. A timid student enters the professor’s office with a late paper. The professor refuses to accept it. The student “reminds” the professor that he has yet to distribute the syllabus for the class. “I know,” replies the professor. Plagiarism comes up, at least covertly, when the professor reluctantly agrees to present a paper that carries his name as a co-author, even though his junior colleague had written it all by herself. Somehow we (well, not all of us) allow ourselves the luxury of this double standard. Until we realize we’re hurting ourselves as much as we’re hurting our students. Hmm, do I see an analogy to the war on Gaza? The war in Iraq?

Here, too, immigrants are part of the picture –  “illegal” immigrants, in this case. I’d like to say undocumented, but it is precisely because they chose a certain form of documenting their presence in this country that poses a problem. I’ll say no more. Go rent the DVD (Alan tells me it’s on Netflix).

So there you go, two films (three if you count the prologue). If you’re a teacher or a professor or a linguist or care about human rights, I recommend you watch them. They’re both complex in their simplicity and will leave you thinking – but also feeling (my shrink would be proud of me for making this distinction) – for a long time.

Just a couple more words on translation:

  1. I would have preferred that the first film be translated ‘It All Begins at the Beach,’ though there is some merit to the current translation.
  2. I find it curious that the Israeli distributors decided to give the French film a Hebrew title faithful to the original: ben ha-kirot.
  3. The Visitor: who is visiting whom? The answer is up for grabs. Of the four main characters, any and all could be deemed as such. Hebrew suffers from a deficit in that it is a gendered language. Thus, the Hebrew ha-oreax (literally, ‘the visitor/guest–masc.’) inherently misses the point and precludes at least the two female characters from being candidates for the title role.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

English video on Gaza doctor

Thanks to Chris Holman for the following link from AlJazeera English:

Oh, the shame

I'm back in the States. As I'm sitting in my office in Lancaster, I learn about the truce Olmert & Co. have apparently agreed to, but also about the tragedy of Ezzeldeen Abu al-Aish, MD, a regular contributor to Israel's Channel 10 News, who reported by cell phone on live TV how his home in Gaza was bombed, killing three of his eight daughters and one of his nieces.

Dr. Abu al-Aish works at Israel's Shiba Hospital in Tel Hashomer, near Tel Aviv. Just a few days ago I heard him on the radio in Israel speaking with journalist Gabi Gazit, in fluent Hebrew, about the need to stop the crazed violent attack on the people of Gaza. A character like Dr. Abu al-Aish, an educated, Hebrew-speaking gynecologist known to many families in Israel, gives even the cynics among Israel's right wing (though not all, as the online responses to the Nana article illustrate) something to shatter their blind hatred for anything Arab, anything Palestinian. 

Needless to say, the Abu al-Aish tragedy is no greater than that of many other, anonymous families in Gaza, whose lives were forever changed by the brutal Israeli attacks. Still, there is something about the story being told first-hand, with no subtitles, with a "tough" journalist like Channel 10's Shlomi Eldar nearly weeping in the studio, which makes it harder to ignore. 

How tempting would it be to think that Olmert, Livni and Barak, the three architects of the war crimes of the past three weeks, were so moved by the human tragedy that they were persuaded to declare the truce. More likely, they were thinking about Obama's looming inauguration and the upcoming elections back home.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

The ultimate irony

Galgalatz, the Israeli army's music and traffic report radio station (yes, I shouldn't be listening to them in the first place) just played a song I never thought I'd hear there, especially while the organization running the station is simultaneously running a war with hundreds of innocent civilian casualties. 

How many deaths will it take till we know
That too many people have died?

Dylan's voice sounded louder and more chilling than I'd ever heard it.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Technical note

I just realized that the Al-Jazeera RSS feed was not being updated. I find Al-Jazeera to be a crucial addition to the landscape of electronic news media, both in English and in Arabic, but since this particular component of the network wasn't working properly, I changed the RSS feed on this blog to another reputable Arabic network, Al-Arabiya.

For those interested in reading Al-Jazeera, you can always navigate to

The most undemocratic democracy in the Middle East

In case you haven't heard, "The Central Elections Committee on Monday banned Arab political parties from running in next month's parliamentary elections [in Israel]." (Ha'

This is the Israel that keeps claiming that it is "the only democracy in the Middle East." The reason for the ban: these parties are allegedly guilty of "incitement, supporting terrorist groups and refusing to recognize Israel's right to exist." (ibid.).

Let's briefly explore these three accusations:

1. Incitement. This means, in this context, denouncing Zionism, opposing the Israeli occupation and oppression of Palestinian lands and persons, opposing human rights violations, such as the current war on Gaza. 

2. Supporting terrorist groups. What this really means is: calling upon Israeli authorities to negotiate with Hamas, Hizbullah and other groups in neighboring territories and countries, which are in dispute with Israel.

3. Refusing to recognize Israel's right to exist. This allegation pertains specifically to the argument that if Israel deems itself a true democracy, it must be a state of all its citizens rather than a "Jewish state." After all, if they were really not willing to recognize the state as such, would they be running for elected office in such a state?

If the views promoted in number 1 on this list are forbidden, this means that official Israel must never comply with United Nations resolutions, as Zionism, the occupation and the current war on Gaza were all denounced by the UN, some more than once.

Number 2: The PLO was once considered a terrorist organization. Some people still can't forgive assassinated  prime minister Yitzhak Rabin and President Shimon Peres for having negotiated with the late Yasser Arafat, but at some point in time their bold position won them extreme popularity – locally and worldwide – and a Nobel Peace Prize.

As for number 3, All i have to say is, gimme a fuckin' break!

Given its track record, it is likely (though there is no guarantee) that Israel's supreme court will overturn the decision of the highly politicized Central Elections Committee. But the mere fact that even Labor Party representatives voted in favor of the measure is alarming, angering, saddening and for me, yet another source of deep deep shame.

And let us not forget the 900+ murdered in Gaza in just over a fortnight by the strong army of this democratic state, of whom some 40% are women and children, who no one – even on the rightmost edge of the Israeli political spectrum – claims were ever guilty of anything. Except, perhaps, being part of a society that voted – in free, internationally overseen elections – for a party Israel loves to hate. 

Ironic? Or just evil?

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

River Jordan is deep and wide

I'm in Amman.

When I was growing up, a sentence like that coming out of my mouth would have been science fiction. When we said yarden, we were merely referring to one of two TV stations broadcasting from the nondescript kingdom to our east. When Israel only had one TV channel, all black and white, Jordan had two channels in color. And static. And a daily newscast in Hebrew that sounded like the anchors were reading the text phonetically in Arabic orthography without understanding a word.

And now I'm in Jordan for the third time. The first time was in 2000, when I was piggybacking on an "educational" excursion with my friend Benny Hary and his Emory University students. 

My second time was just seven months ago, and it was much more independent. My friend Dan and I crossed the border up north, took buses and cabs all the way south, crossed the border back to Israel in Aqaba/Eilat, and drove a rental car back to Tel Aviv.

(I'm not counting the two layovers I had at Queen Alya International Airport on my way to and from Cairo last January, though even that was exciting).

This time I'm here solo. I volunteered to conduct some site visits at three centers that teach Arabic to speakers of foreign languages (mostly from the US), to assess their usefulness for my students in Lancaster. 

I was going to cross the border by land again, but given the lack of popularity of Israel and Israelis these days, I caved in to my mother's pleas and booked a last-minute flight.

My hotel, it turns out, is the next-door neighbor of the Egyptian Embassy, and across the street is the Palestinian Embassy. I myself purchased a kaffiyye, not so much to "protect" myself (people see I'm a whitey no matter what I wear), but more to show solidarity and to be involved in my own little way while I'm here.

Jordan is not the most glorious country in the Middle East. It doesn't have the political power that Egypt has, nor is it as culturally significant as Egypt or Lebanon. It's not part of any kind of "axis of evil", like Syria is supposed to be. It's not rich and ultra-modernized like the Gulf states, or vast and mysterious as its eastern neighbor Saudi Arabia.

Say "Amman", and most American school children would have no idea what you're talking about. Mention its historical name, Philadelphia, and you'll be talking about its much younger counterpart across the river from Camden, NJ.

Amman doesn't make much sense to me. Or at least it doesn't for now. It's mostly gray/beige with flowing traffic and friendly people. Modern street signs with house numbers
 are prominent, but even cab drivers often fail to find your destination if all you have is so-and-so street, house number X. Tell them whose pharmacy it's next to, or what's the name of the nearest mosque, and you're slightly more likely to get there, and not be too late.

Amman is not a place even I would just come to as a tourist per se. We stop here on our way from the archaeological site in Jarash to the impressive findings in Petra. We fly Royal Jordanian from Ben-Gurion Airport to destinations east, or sometimes southwest. But I'm glad I'm having the chance to be here for four days. 

It's hard for me not to romanticize my very being here. The place I could formerly only see on television. The capital of a country that had been so near and so unapproachable. The place where people like the ones I see in Jerusalem and Jaffa and Nazareth and the Negev and (until recently) in Bethlehem and Ramallah live. 

I had lunch today at a place called Books@Café. Everyone spoke English there, including the waitress, who I guess was Thai or Filipina. Two Arab-looking young men sat at the table in front of me. The one facing me had a Palestinian kaffiyye on, the same kind I had bought yesterday, and spoke English in what to me sounded like a slight German accent. The gentleman at the other side of the table spoke English as well, with a more pronounced Arabic accent. They both interjected words, phrases, even full sentences in Arabic, but their conversation was primarily in English. The first guy (80% gay, my gaydar says) is conducting research on identity. He wants to learn whether Pales
tinians living in Jordan feel more Jordanian or more Palestinian, or equally both, and why. I feel like I've heard this discussion a million times, but maybe it's just because I've read a handful of sociolinguistic studies on Jordanian youth by Enam Al-Wer at the University of Essex. He has questionnaires. The other guy fills one out. I wanted to go to their table and ask them why they were speaking English. I felt as if I could do it and be accepted with the friendliness I had been experiencing since I got here.

Eventually I chickened out. My excuse was an excruciating headache. I had no pain relievers on me and just wanted to eat and get back to my hotel room, where I'd self-medicate. But I was satisfied that I was even considering interacting with these two people. In a way, I envy Jordan. I'm sort of an Arab wannabe. And frankly, I wouldn't wanna be a Palestinian refugee in a camp in Nablus or Gaza. I have the utmost sympathy for them (and shitloads of guilt), but if I could choose, why not be a Jordanian? I'd enjoy the same climate, have similar cultural experiences, but unlike the Palestinians in the Occupied Territories – or even in Israel – I'd be a full-fledged citizen, with pride and a sense of belonging.

Okay, I don't want to go overboard with the longing and the romanticizing. There are still quite a few cons that may in fact outweigh the pros, but I'll save those to myself for the time being.

הארץ Haaretz

العربية.نت | آخر الأخبار Al-Arabiya