Archive for March, 2011

New real estate in God’s Venice

March 31, 2011

WHAT WOULD THE POET SAY ABOUT THIS?
In one of the few remaining bits of open, rocky terrain in Jerusalem, just a few minutes’ walk east of my house, a stone inscription announces a mini-neighborhood to be named for the poet Yehuda Amichai. The inscription includes a line from one of his poems, describing Jerusalem as “a port city on the shores of eternity.”

According to critic Glenda Abramson, the poem is part of a cycle expressing “prophetic disappointment” in the city, but those who chose the inscription may not have been aware of that.

Anything built on this piece of prime real estate will undoubtedly be bought by wealthy people abroad who, if they come here at all, will sail in for two weeks a year, to grace with their presence the city that Amichai referred to as “God’s Venice.”

NEW LAW ENABLES MINISTRY TO NAB POLLUTERS
A new law, the Environmental Enforcement Law, makes the state and all its agencies—including the Israel Defense Forces and the defense agencies—subject to inspection. The new law, according to the Environmental Protection Ministry, reflects its policy of zero tolerance toward polluters.

Now that’s a law I’d like to see in action. “Hey, soldier, pick up that Coke can you just tossed. And you don’t have to point your gun at me. I’m just a ministry inspector trying to enforce the law.”

PETER ZUMTHOR TO DESIGN PAVILION AT HISHAM’S PALACE
Swiss architect Peter Zumthor, who won the prestigious Pritzker Prize in 2009, is designing a pavilion to protect the magnificent mosaic floors of Hisham’s Palace, north of Jericho. The mosaics of this sumptuous palace, built in the 8th century CE, are considered the largest and most important in the Middle East. The pavilion will consist of a lattice of Lebanese cedar beams resting on reinforced concrete pillars. Construction is to begin in 2013.

IF BEDOUIN IN A TENT CAN DO IT…
On a recent trip to the south of the country I was surprised to see solar electricity panels, solar panels for heating water, and satellite dishes, all in Bedouin villages where the fanciest house is a tin shack. The panels are necessary because unrecognized Bedouin villages are not connected to the national electricity grid.

The state would like all Bedouin to get off the land and move to cities, but urbanization has led to a breakdown of the social structure and an increase in crime. It has also had a negative effect on women, who have lost their economic function as shepherds (which formerly enabled them to move freely outdoors), and have become confined to their homes.

At the same time, more and more Bedouin girls are receiving education, and they account for the majority of Bedouin college graduates. But in their case, education is a mixed blessing, because it makes it harder for them to find suitable husbands.

MINOR DISCOVERY DESERVES A PATENT
I recently made a discovery of the culinary kind. Though I avoid caffeine, I love drinking lattés, especially very hot ones with lots of foam. But I spend little time in cafés and I don’t have an espresso machine at home (since I don’t drink coffee).

What I do have is a hand-operated milk foamer. It looks like what you’d use for French press coffee. You heat the milk in it in a microwave oven and then plunge the mesh part a few dozen times to create the foam. But no matter how hard I try, there’s never enough foam to suit me.

Last week I discovered that if, after pouring in the foamed milk, I put my cup in the microwave oven for a few seconds, not only is the beverage (made with coffee substitute) as hot as I like, it has mountains of very stiff foam. Elementary physics, Watson.

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They raced through the capital on a rainy Friday

March 25, 2011

KENYANS TAKE FIRST JERUSALEM MARATHON
Four Kenyan men were the first to reach the finish line in Jerusalem’s first marathon, but three of them took a wrong turn and ended up at the wrong finish line, according to The Jerusalem Post. The official winner, Raymond Kipkoechh, 34, ran the course in 2:26:44, but arrived at the finish line of the half-marathon, rather than that of the full marathon.

The winning female runner was Oda Worknesh, 26, from Ethiopia with a time of 2:50:05.

Street closures for the marathon, whose route wound through residential neighborhoods, perplexed local residents, who found that as early as 6 a.m. they could not drive anywhere. The race was held as scheduled despite a bomb attack in the city two days before.

BIBLE TRANSLATOR WAS BOMB VICTIM
Mary Jane Gardner, 55, has been identified as the woman killed by a bomb in Jerusalem Wednesday. She was from Orkney in Scotland and was studying Hebrew at the Hebrew University in order to better understand the Bible. She recently helped translate the New Testament into Ifè, a language spoken in Benin and Togo.

HOW TO HELP EARTHQUAKE VICTIMS IN JAPAN
Friends who operate the wonderful Quillcards Blog are also part of the Lonely Planet’s Blogsherpa community of travel writers. They refer their readers to Todd Wassel, who is a development expert specializing in conflict management and human rights. Wassel, who has lived in Japan for many years, has put together a list of trusted organizations. Note that most of the organizations accept bank transfers but not credit card payments.

EINSTEIN’S PAPERS SOON TO BE ON-LINE
Albert Einstein, one of the founders of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem (my alma mater), was present at its opening in 1925. He bequeathed his papers, some 80,000 documents including letters to his wife and step-daughters, to the university.

Now a $500,000 grant from the Polonsky Foundation of London is enabling the university to digitize its Einstein archives and make them available on-line. The papers are an important resource for the history of physics, and they also shed light on the social, political, and intellectual history of the modern world.

The digitization project is expected to take one year.

HE GAVE THEM HIS IMAGE, TOO
Einstein bequeathed not only his papers to the Hebrew University, but also the royalties from the use of his image. Apparently this is not common knowledge. Ben Faraj, the owner of a photography shop in Petah Tikva, was surprised to discover that the university wanted NIS 20,000 from him for a violation of its rights, specifically for agreeing to print an image of the famous physicist on 40 T-shirts for a mysterious customer who did not identify himself, the Ha’aretz daily reported last week.

In response to a query from the newspaper, the university apologized to Faraj. Apparently the mysterious customer was an over-zealous private investigator. The university insisted that it does not deceive merchants in order to catch them in violation of the copyright. 

THIS MAN WAS BORN TO THE TITLE
The lord chief justice and presidents of the courts of England and Wales is to speak at the university this coming Monday. The topic of the talk, “The judiciary and the media,” is interesting enough, but even more interesting is the name of the lord chief justice: Ivor Judge.

 

Spring arrives with Purim and wild plum blossoms

March 19, 2011

The tree outside my window that grew from a discarded plum pit has bloomed—suddenly, it seems. This, and the appearance of some strange critters, is the surest sign that spring is here.

Harbingers of spring and spring-cleaning mania make their appearance.

INVASION OF DRAGONS AND POWER RANGERS
Two scary characters knocked on our door yesterday morning. One, dressed in blue and silver, was brandishing a sword; the other, breathing fire, threatened to devour us. The Power Ranger and the dragon, who had come from next door to show off their costumes, were headed for Purim parties in their kindergarten and nursery school.
Purim is the best holiday of the year. I never miss the reading of the Scroll of Esther—a Persian story with a Byzantine plot, full of intrigue, danger, reversals, and sex. I love to hoot and whistle and stamp my feet along with all the kids each time the name of the Jews’ nemesis Haman (Boo! Feh! Humbug!) is mentioned.

Purim (officially a one-day holiday, celebrated a day late in walled cities like Jerusalem) goes on for about a week in Israel, at least judging by the number of days you can see kids in costume. As far as I’m concerned, it could last a whole month!

POST-PURIM HYSTERIA, AN ISRAELI SYNDROME
I would like Purim to last longer, but there is a powerful reason it can’t, at least in Israel. After Purim, there are only four weeks until Passover, four weeks in which every part of the house must be scrubbed, polished, or blow-torched.

Passover, after all, is the holiday on which we eschew leavened bread and chew only matza. And before we can indulge in eating matza, the house must be rid of every last crumb of bread, cookies, breakfast cereal, or any other foodstuff that has crept into pockets, drawers, and corners.

My mother was religiously observant and she was no slouch as a housekeeper, but she lived in California and her Passover cleaning was nothing compared to the madness here. Laundries and dry cleaners work overtime. Supermarkets do their best business of the year on cleaning products. And the pre-holiday frenzy provides work one month a year for teenagers in yeshivas (religious seminaries).

Some rabbis have declared that there is no religious requirement for such compulsive cleaning, but it seems that the sound of the vacuum cleaners and scrub brushes has drowned out their words.

NEW MEDICAL SCHOOL TO OPEN IN SAFED
Though Israel’s fifth medical school doesn’t have a permanent campus, it is to open this fall with 130 students, the daily Ha’aretz reports. The school, under the auspices of the Ramat Gan-based Bar-Ilan University, will open in temporary quarters in Safed, a city in Galilee, where land has been set aside for the campus but construction could take five years. The school is offering scholarships to students in exchange for several years’ work in Galilee hospitals.

In August 2009, Israel’s Health Ministry warned of a severe shortage of doctors and nurses, especially anesthesiologists and surgeons. According to the ministry, as reported on ynet.com, there had been an 8% drop in the number of doctors since 2000 and a 40% drop in the number of nurses.

One reason for the shortage is the drop in immigration. Many of Israel’s medical staffers were trained in the former Soviet Union and immigrated in the decade following the USSR’s collapse in 1989, but immigration has tapered off.

One plan in 2010 for meeting the shortfall was to bring 20 anesthesiologists and surgeons from Soviet Georgia to do their residencies in Israel. Meanwhile, however, a Tel Aviv hospital’s plan to provide residencies for British and Cypriot medical students has aroused criticism from Israel’s medical schools on the grounds that this will reduce opportunities for local medical students.

Text and photo copyright 2011 by Esther Hecht. No part of the text or photo may be used without written permission of the author.

My heart is where the earth moves

March 17, 2011

The Japanese people’s response to the catastrophe in their country has filled me with awe. My heart is with them.

NOVEL VISIT TO THE HOLY LAND
Ever since 1999, when the late pope John Paul II wrote to his flock prior to his second visit to the Holy Land, “Let us set out in the footsteps of Jesus,” more and more Catholics have been responding to the pope’s call. None, however, has had the stature of a recent arrival, St. Thérèse of Lisieux, the diminutive French Carmelite nun known as the Little Flower of Jesus. After her death of tuberculosis in 1897 at the age of 24, her memoir, The Story of a Soul, made her one of the most popular saints of the twentieth century.

St. Thérès’s relics have toured the world for years, and in response to a request made in 1977 they finally arrived in the Holy Land this week for a two-month sojourn. An apostolic delegation received them at Ben-Gurion Airport. Among the places where they are to be venerated are Jerusalem, Haifa, Nazareth, Nablus, and Gaza.

The relics of St. Thérèse of Lisieux receive a warm welcome at Ben-Gurion Airport this week. (Courtesy of the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem)

NO NEED TO ROUGH IT AT ISRAELI HOSTELS
Israel hopes that 4 million tourists will visit this year and that the number will rise to 5 million by 2015. But where will they all sleep? One or two at a time can try my one-room B&B (Bed and Breakfast in Old Katamon).

Some of the others can check in at one of nine youth hostels that are to be upgraded and expanded over the coming years for use by visitors of all ages. Two hostels, in Acre and Poriya, will open to the public in May and June.

BOUND FOR TROUBLE EN ROUTE TO LOS ANGELES
Three young Jewish men on an Alaskan Airlines jet from Mexico City to Los Angeles caused a security flap by engaging in what England’s Daily Mail referred to this week as “a bizarre Jewish prayer.”

The three men, Mexican nationals, had put on phylacteries (tefillin), which are cubic boxes containing verses from the Torah, bound to the forehead and the arm with leather straps. Alerted by an alarmed flight attendant, the pilots locked down their cockpit. The plane was met at LAX by police and firefighters, and the three men were detained for questioning by the FBI before being allowed to continue on their journey.

MY DOPPELGÄNGER/S TRAVELING THE CYBER-WORLD
One of the dangers of looking for yourself on the Internet is discovering that there’s more than one you out there. Just Google your name and you’ll see what I mean. That’s why my introductory piece on this blog was titled “Who I am and who I’m not.”

The concept of the doppelgänger has intrigued me for years, especially since the doppelgänger in the English Gothic novel was to have been the topic of my (never-completed) doctoral thesis.

Recently I discovered that I have a subscriber named Esther Hecht. I suppose that “me-but-not-me” is curious to know what this me is up to. I just want her to know that the feeling is mutual.

AN INTERNET ROAM IN ARABIC
My blog setup enables me to see Internet search terms that have led individuals to my writings. I was intrigued a few days ago to see a search term in Arabic. I looked it up with Google Translate and the word turned out to be Ashkelon, which led that reader to “Ashkelon: 4 things your guidebook won’t tell you
and “From Santa Fe to Ashkelon: It’s almost like falling in love.”

Text copyright 2011 by Esther Hecht. No part of the text may be used without written permission of the author.

So you think you can talk “mame-loshen” (posted again with the italics corrected)

March 12, 2011

Four university professors, a physicist, an engineer, and one journalistke met in a book-lined room to read together—aloud—a book on Yiddish linguistics. The host had set out traditional Jewish fare, rozhinkes mit mandeln (raisins and almonds) and poured little glasses of kosher wine so they could drink a l’chaim (a toast) to the beginning of their endeavor.

And then the jokes started flying—in Yiddish.

In the round of introductions, the participants told how they had come to know Yiddish. One said, “I heard it at home.” “You mean you overheard it,” responded another.

When it came to the host, the linguist Tsuguya Sasaki, someone asked how many languages he knows.

Ich ken shveign oif dreitzen sprach (I can shut up in thirteen languages),” Sasaki quipped with a straight face.

Sasaki and one of the participants also attend a similar group that reads Esperanto, a language that they described as “Yiddish for goyim [non-Jews].”

“Why is Esperanto a Slavic language?” one of them tossed out. “Because it’s a dialect of Yiddish!” responded the other.

They described attending an Esperanto conference in another country where the delegates spoke Yiddish during the break. And what do you think the Esperanto aficionados did during a break in the Yiddish meeting? They talked Esperanto, of course.

The host, who teaches Hebrew linguistics at Bar-Ilan University, proudly showed off a Yiddish-Japanese dictionary he had acquired. Then he wondered why three of the people who said they were coming had not shown up yet.

One of the professors assured him that they were probably operating on Jewish time and explained that if you set the time for acht bidiyuk (8 o’clock on the dot), you couldn’t expect much because bidiyuk is an acronym for “biz de yidden vellen kommen” (until the Jews arrive).

Meanwhile, there was a mini-discussion of poverty. One participant told a joke about a town so poor that when someone wanted to break a 100 crown note, no one could find a 100 crown note to break.

And another participant recalled that when she started teaching Yiddish at Bar-Ilan, she was told that the Lithuanian pronunciation is now considered standard. This was not what she had grown up with, but she quickly learned it, so much so that when she came home and started talking to her father, Lithuanian Yiddish came out of her mouth. Her father, quite annoyed (because there has always been rivalry between the different groups of Yiddish speakers) said to her, “Ti mir a toive—red vi a mensch (Do me a favor—talk like a human being).”

When the actual reading for which we had gathered began, I wanted to crawl under my chair and hide. Everyone else read with at least a fair degree of fluency, and some with mellifluous ease. I had never read Yiddish aloud, except to sound out the words in the text as I was reading it in preparation for the meeting. There were so many unfamiliar words, but even the familiar ones were easier to grasp if I said them aloud to myself.

Suffice it to say that everyone was very polite when I read and even wished me a yasher koich (“congratulations,” usually used when someone has an honor in the synagogue, such as reading from the Torah). Maybe I will improve with practice, but I wouldn’t put my money on it.

Meanwhile, I was happy to learn that our host’s immediate family in Japan was not directly affected by today’s earthquake and tsunami.

And on that positive note, I wish you a gitten shabbes (a good Sabbath) and apologize if I’ve mangled the transliterations.

Text copyright 2011 by Esther Hecht. No part of the text may be used without written permission of the author.

So you think you can talk ‘mame-loshen’

March 11, 2011

Four university professors, a physicist, an engineer, and one journalistke met in a book-lined room to read together—aloud—a book on Yiddish linguistics. The host had set out traditional Jewish fare, rozhinkes mit mandeln (raisins and almonds) and poured little glasses of kosher wine so they could drink a l’chaim (a toast) to the beginning of their endeavor.

And then the jokes started flying—in Yiddish.

In the round of introductions, the participants told how they had come to know Yiddish. One said, “I heard it at home.” “You mean you overheard it,” responded another.

When it came to the host, the linguist Tsuguya Sasaki, someone asked how many languages he knows.

Ich ken shveign oif dreitzen sprach (I can shut up in thirteen languages),” Sasaki quipped with a straight face.

Sasaki and one of the participants also attend a similar group that reads Esperanto, a language that they described as “Yiddish for goyim [non-Jews].”

“Why is Esperanto a Slavic language?” one of them tossed out. “Because it’s a dialect of Yiddish!” responded the other.

They described attending an Esperanto conference in another country where the delegates spoke Yiddish during the break. And what do you think the Esperanto aficionados did during a break in the Yiddish meeting? Of course, they talked Esperanto.

The host, who teaches Hebrew linguistics at Bar-Ilan University, proudly showed off a Yiddish-Japanese dictionary he had acquired. Then he wondered why three of the people who said they were coming had not shown up yet.

One of the professors assured him that they were probably operating on Jewish time and explained that if you set the time for acht bidiyuk (8 o’clock on the dot), you couldn’t expect much because bidiyuk is an acronym for “biz de yidden vellen kommen” (until the Jews arrive).

Meanwhile, there was a mini-discussion of poverty. One participant told a joke about a town so poor that when someone wanted to break a 100 crown note, no one could find a 100 crown note to break.

And another participant recalled that when she started teaching Yiddish at Bar-Ilan, she was told that the Lithuanian pronunciation is now considered standard. This was not what she had grown up with, but she quickly learned it, so much so that when she came home and started talking to her father, Lithuanian Yiddish came out of her mouth. Her father, quite annoyed (because there has always been rivalry between the different groups of Yiddish speakers) said to her, “Ti mir a toive—red vi a mensch (Do me a favor—talk like a human being).”

When the actual reading for which we had gathered began, I wanted to crawl under my chair and hide. Everyone else read with at least a fair degree of fluency, and some with mellifluous ease. I had never read Yiddish aloud, except to sound out the words in the text as I was reading it in preparation for the meeting. There were so many unfamiliar words, but even the familiar ones were easier to grasp if I said them aloud to myself.

Suffice it to say that everyone was very polite when I read and even wished me a yasher koich (“congratulations,” usually used when someone has an honor in the synagogue, such as reading from the Torah). Maybe I will improve with practice, but I wouldn’t put my money on it.

Meanwhile, I was happy to learn that our host’s immediate family in Japan was not directly affected by today’s earthquake and tsunami.

And on that positive note, I wish you a gitten shabbes (a good Sabbath) and apologize if I’ve mangled the transliterations.

Text copyright 2011 by Esther Hecht. No part of the text may be used without written permission of the author.

Yiddish and other sins of omission

March 1, 2011

What would my parents think if they knew I’d been spending hours and hours crawling through a tome on Yiddish linguistics… in Yiddish? They would probably laugh themselves silly, because they know I don’t know anything but kiddie Yiddish.

At least, that was my mother’s reaction when I passed the German exemption exam in graduate school solely on the basis of the German I had heard at home. For the exam I had to translate a poem by Heine (that was easy) and a passage of literary criticism on Cervantes consisting of one sentence that took up a whole page. For that I had to look up almost every word, but somehow German sentence structure had passed into my brain by osmosis and I was able to figure out what was a noun and what was a verb.

My parents, refugees from Hitler’s Europe, spoke both Yiddish and German. My mother grew up in Vienna in a Yiddish-speaking home. My father, who grew up in Poland, lived in Vienna for about 10 years as a young man. In America, they spoke mostly Yiddish to each other and to some of their friends, German to other friends, and mostly English to the children.

When I was about thirteen, my mother realized she had missed the opportunity to teach me Yiddish, so she started speaking Yiddish to me. She couldn’t have picked a worse time. I refused to play along; I would not utter a word of that foreign language. But I understood everything she said to me.

Today, I have a hard time keeping German and Yiddish, which is largely a dialect of German, separate. I can’t even remember how my parents (who spoke with the accent of Galicia) pronounced the words that were pronounced differently by Lithuanian Jews.

And yet, between those two languages and Hebrew (there are lots of Hebrew words in Yiddish), I am able to get the gist of this tome on linguistics, at least in the introductory section which isn’t too technical. I can appreciate some of the author’s mixed metaphors, for example (in my rough translation): “In 801, the name of a Jew (Isaac) wrests itself from the long night of silence and swims [to the surface] in Aachen, a sort of patriarch Isaac of Ashkenaz.” This Isaac was one of the emissaries of Charlemagne (Carl the Great) to the Abbasid caliph Harun al-Rashid, and the date marks the beginning of Jewish settlement in the mid-Rhine region.

And when the author says that a native speaker of Yiddish will accept a nonce word if it is built according to the rules of Yiddish—for example, a noun to which the suffix “-nik” has been added—I have no trouble following his argument.

A friend asked why I’m bothering with Yiddish linguistics. I suppose it’s because of the challenge. Another friend is going to lead a monthly study group of this text, and I thought it would be fun to join in. Perhaps, also, it’s a way of reaching out to my long-dead parents, with whom I had a difficult relationship.

I don’t know the level of the other group members, but my friend’s Yiddish is excellent. He even writes it flawlessly. His Hebrew, including the pronunciation, is perfect, too, and his English is nearly flawless. But he’s a linguist, and that explains everything.

And what would my parents think if they knew that this person leading the group for which I’m going to all this trouble to learn about Yiddish linguistics is named Tsuguya Sasaki?

Text copyright 2011 by Esther Hecht. No part of the text may be used without written permission of the author.