Monday, July 28, 2003

Making the News

The exchange in the newsroom at the San Diego Union-Tribune probably went something like this:

"Hey Chief! I've got a great idea for a story!"

"OK, pitch me."

"Well, you remember that girl from San Diego, Marla Bennett, who got killed a year ago in a bomb at Hebrew University in Jerusalem? Well, they're having a memorial for her. It's been exactly a year."

"Yawn. Haven't we done that story to death already...pardon my French."

"Yeah, but thousands of people are supposed to show up. And Peter Yarrow of Peter Paul and Mary is going to perform."

"Sounds interesting. But people will accuse us of being too one-sided. Of only focusing on the pain of the victim. You know that Israel doesn't play all that well here in California. You've got to start thinking more creatively here."

"I'm not sure what you mean exactly."

"Give me a parallel. Maybe pair this Marla with another American university kid who got blown Israeli terrorists. Yeah, that would be perfect."

"But there haven't been any..."

"You've got to think out of the box! Remember that piece ABC News did a year ago. About the Palestinian teenage suicide bomber who blew up another teenager, a 17-year-old Israeli girl, at a supermarket in Jerusalem. That's what I'm talking about."

"But that piece generated a ton of hate mail and no end of controversy by people saying that it was totally inappropriate."

"Exactly! Think of the ratings. Do something like that."

"Well, there was this girl in Gaza..."

"Go on..."

"Her name was Rachel Corrie. She got caught under an Israeli bulldozer."

"I like it."

"But it was clearly an accident."

"Out of the box, kid, out of the box!"

"I don't wasn't like she was even from San Diego. I think she went to school somewhere up in Washington State."

"West Coast! No problem. You want to win a Pulitzer someday, this is how it starts."

"But wouldn't this be too obvious an attempt to just get us a little extra publicity?"

"You've got it all wrong, kid. We've got to play up the inappropriateness. To our own advantage."

"How so, Chief?"

"Interview people for the article and tell them from the get-go that you're going to be making a completely specious parallel, a cloying attempt to grab the reader's attention. Then write up their outraged reaction before the article even comes out!"

"Is that good journalism?"

"You're missing the point again. And oh yeah, don't forget to ask the family to comment, too."

"They'll never speak to me. They're still grieving pretty hard."

"Perfect. Then you can make up a good line like 'the mother slammed the door on this intrepid reporter. The tears were heavy in her eyes.'"



"I can't do it."

"Have you been listening to a word..."

"Isn't there a journalistic code of ethics? I remember reading about it once in a class..."

"That was written for a different day, a different age."

"No, Chief. There are still values we have to uphold. As journalists. And as human beings. Making a parallel, a pairing between two girls who died in entirely unrelated circumstances may be expedient, it may sell papers, but it cheapens the memory of both."

"And not doing it puts our readers to sleep."

"I don't agree. Every individual is unique. Every story deserves to be told on its own. If I can't write a story about Marla and make her life stand out without resorting to cheap tricks, what kind of reporter am I? Just one who takes a very real human tragedy and cynically turns it into a simplistic headline."

"All right, all right. I see your point. Go on and write the honorable story...with my blessing."

Would that this exchange had actually taken place. Instead, click here to read the actual story that ran in the San Diego Union Tribune just prior to the memorial gathering for Marla which was held in San Diego on July 21, 2003.

Sunday, July 20, 2003

Salty Fish

If there were any one thing that would be the cause of our leaving Israel, it wouldn’t be the war, the terror, or the economy.

It would be the Hebrew.

I have tried, believe me I have. I’ve been in a half-dozen different Hebrew courses over the eleven years I have been in this country, but it just doesn’t seem to stick for me.

Oh, I can handle shopping and asking directions, and I even know our phone number and address in Hebrew, but put me in a serious discussion or a meeting at work, and I simply zone out.

Truthfully, I’m no good with languages, any of them. I took French for five years in junior and senior high school. Don’t remember a word. Except for “ou est la toilette?” You never forget something like that. Same with German, which I took in college – another year down the…well you get the idea. So in comparison, I speak Hebrew like a native.

One of the things that gives me the greatest joy is knowing that my kids won’t have to suffer like me. They are fluent in both English and Hebrew, an advantage that cannot be underestimated in our increasingly global village.

Sometimes, however, I catch them mixing languages in the same sentences. Five-year-old Aviv, who is the only one of the three of our children who was born here, is the chief culprit.

“The gannenet said that if we n’seder all the tables b’shniot, we can go to the hatzer and get matanot.


What he meant was: my kindergarten teacher said that if we arrange all the tables really quickly, we can go to the playground and get presents!”

Another time, when asked what he did that day, he proudly announced, “We played dag maluach.

They played with salty fish (the translation of “dag maluach”)?

I’m sure it was some kind of game, but neither Aviv nor I knew its English translation.

Kids learning two languages at once is always a good source of entertainment. However, apparently the mixing of languages has gotten so endemic in certain adult Jewish communities that a scholarly website called Jewish Language Research has now set up a new division for “Jewish English.”

Highly annotated, the site discusses in great detail the way that observant Jewish English speakers have begun mixing Hebrew and Yiddishisms into ordinary sentences to such an extent that Stanford University researcher Joshua Fishman asks in all seriousness: “is it possible that a new Jewish language is being born before our very eyes but that few are aware of it?”

Fishman continues: “Jewish English seems to be following the progression in which a group of Jews moves to a new land, picks up the local language, and speaks progressively more distinctly over time.”

This was the genesis of other Jewish languages. Yiddish evolved from the collision of Hebrew and German. Ladino was the Jewish language in areas where the Jews spoke Spanish. Aramaic is still spoken by the Jews of Syria who mixed Hebrew with Arabic.

These languages helped Jews keep their religious and national ties while in the Diaspora. It also gave them a secret language. Before we had kids, Jody and I used to speak to each other in our highly broken Hebrew if we didn’t want others to know what we were talking about.

Things like: how can we sneak out of here without hurting anyone’s feelings.

And: does the spinach casserole taste a little funny to you?

Once we had bilingual kids, of course, those days were gone.

“Jewish English” has many of the same elements of a secret language only understood by those in the club. For example, observant Jewish English speakers – and in particular the newly religious – regularly pepper their sentences with expressions like Baruch Hashem (Thank God), and words such as bentsh (to say Grace After Meals) and bleich (not an epithet of disgust but rather a large metal hotplate that keeps food warm on Shabbat).

By the way, if anyone told me when I was growing up that I'd write a sentence using the words bentsch and bleich, I'd have told them they were completely m'shuganah.

Then there are whole sentences that go back and forth between languages. One time at a Shabbat meal, one of our more Yeshiva-influenced guests started the following drash (a mini-sermon):

“I heard a great shiur from the Rosh Yeshiva where he poskins that to mesameach the chatan v’kallah is the most gevaltik mitzvah.

Which translates loosely as “I heard a class given by the school headmaster where he rules that to entertain a bride and groom is the most exalted commandment.”


There are whole books that document these types of back and forth, for example Chaim Weiser’s Frumspeak

The problem with all this is that now, in addition to still having to improve my Hebrew, I have to learn yet a third language. I don’t know if I can handle it.

Frankly, I think I’d be better off just staying at home and playing salty fish with Aviv.

Sunday, July 13, 2003

Spoiler Alert

It's called a spoiler. I didn't know that. Now that it's gone, though, I know more about spoilers and their place in society than I should.

A spoiler is the decorative bar that's placed at the top of the trunk on many cars, including my Mazda 626 Hatchback. It was part of what made the car look cool and fashionable.

One morning, I came down to my car to drive off to work. The spoiler was gone.

Ripped off, figuratively and literally. Right off the trunk of the car. All that was left was the screws that once held it in.

I know that car emblems are stolen. But a whole spoiler? That takes work.

My car is a company car, so that means the company takes care of the insurance and repairs. I went into the car office. I told them I wanted a new spoiler.

"No can do," said Eli. Well it sounded like that, only it was in very rapidly-spoken Hebrew so I'm loosely translating.

"Why not?" I asked.

"Company won't pay for it. It costs 5000 shekels," he replied. "We'll fill in the holes for you. Come in next Tuesday."

"But I loved that spoiler. I want a new spoiler."

"Next Tuesday, 9:00 AM."

Why bother, I thought. A 626 Hatchback with a spoiler is as pedestrian as a sedan. I might as well leave the protruding screws there, as a memory, or as proof that I once had a car that made a statement.

I suppose it could be worse. Before the violence started in September 2000, when the borders were much more open than they are today, whole cars would be stolen. Some ended up as state vehicles for Palestinian Authority officials. Others would be stripped for parts and sold back to Israeli garages since used parts were much lower in price.

I suppose you could get your car stolen, buy a new car and not long after wind up buying a used carburetor from your original car.

Indeed, we had one friend who had three Toyota Corollas stolen in succession. He finally bought a Ford.

In the last year, car thefts are down 18%. One ironic benefit of the war.

"Who would want to steal a spoiler anyway?" I asked Eli.

"Are you kidding," laughed Eli. "There's not a car in the country that still has its spoiler." A bit of an exaggeration, but I got the point.

"What would someone do with a stolen spoiler anyway?"

"They put them on their own cars. Or they sell them to people who have had their spoilers stolen."

I should have figured...

Monday, July 07, 2003

Freedom and Responsibility at the Zoo

Of all the holidays we expatriate Anglos in Israel miss from our North American childhoods, the 4th of July holds a special place. It’s a feel good holiday with hot dogs and fireworks and a great message about freedom and independence.

What’s not to like?

So, every fourth of July, the Association of Americans and Canadians in Israel holds a get-together for the 150,000 or so strong English-speaking community here to reminisce, sing folk songs, and generally shmooze. (The celebration is an equal opportunity event, also commemorating Canada’s July 1st Independence Day).

In years past, the AACI party was held outdoors in Jerusalem’s Gan Sacher, but that location has been deemed too difficult to secure, so now the event is held at the Jerusalem Zoo. Which makes the whole thing even sweeter.

The Zoo is one of Jody and my most cherished spaces in all of Israel. It’s not so much for the animals and attractions as it is fact that this is a true zoological garden filled with rolling lawns, benches, shady trees and even a meandaring brook right down the middle.

It’s not a big zoo like the one in San Diego we visit every summer. But it’s very manageability is what makes it so charming.

In short, it’s the perfect place to go at the end of a hot Jerusalem day with a picnic lunch and enough money to purchase a few artickim (popsicles) for the kids.

It wasn’t always this way. The zoo only moved to its current location ten years ago. Before that, it was a dingy, concrete-centric collection of broken down cages and sorry looking animals housed in the midst of a residential neighborhood.

Its new location, funded by the Tisch family, is set just outside the city, past the Malcha Mall. A modern zoo, built entirely from scratch is, apparently, a big deal in the zoo world, and the designers gave it their all: there is a charming monkey island just as you enter, the buffaloes have ample room to roam, and they erected the best children’s playground in the city.

Not to mention a delightful re-creation of Noah’s Ark for the kids to climb on.

Which is fitting since the zoo is still known to many by its old name: the Biblical Zoo, comprised primarily of animals mentioned in the Bible. This, I suppose, is to contrast it with the country’s national zoo (also known as the Knesset).

Now, you may think that I wax too poetic here; after all, it’s only a zoo. But Jody and I have a longstanding fondness for zoos. After all, we were married at one.

For our wedding in August 1988, we found the perfect inexpensive hall. It just happened to be located on the grounds of the Oakland Zoo.

The hall wasn’t exactly next to the elephant cage, but the zoo train did pass by every twenty minutes. If you asked the zoo staff nicely, they’d agree to stifle the train’s toot-toot as it passed by. Otherwise the Rabbi might find himself making the blessing on the wine and it coming out “borei pri ha…toot-toot.”

To this day, I suspect that zoo has inadvertently invalidated scores of Jewish marriages.

The Jerusalem Zoo doesn’t hold weddings, but it is a remarkably safe environment. At the Fourth of July celebration, we let our kids run off without us while Jody and I sat on the grass with a couple of other friends. Were we were influenced by the day's theme of freedom and independence? Not really; it was just par for the course in Israel.

Indeed, the freedom children have to go off on their own, whether that’s picking up a slice of pizza or taking the bus downtown at age 9, is one of the things that people who visit Israel for the first time still comment on as being profoundly different from life in contemporary North America.

And if you think about it, it really is quite astounding that, despite all the terror and violence that has engulfed this region over the past few years, we still let our kids out of our sight. There is just no fear of kidnappings, of dangerous strangers lurking behind bushes.

Indeed, the opposite is true. One time we were at the park in Ra’anana and we lost track of the kids entirely. An hour later, a kindly elderly couple found us and asked: “Do these belong to you?”

Still, after awhile, we got a bit concerned. The kids been gone for over an hour now. Maybe they were lost? Maybe Aviv had fallen into the penguin pit and Amir and Merav were valiantly trying to fish him out. An announcement came over the Public Address system.

Closing time in 10 minutes.

In 5 minutes.

“The zoo is now closed. Please make your way to the exits.”

And no sign of our kids. Until…

Far on the horizon, we spotted three running figures, rounding the pelicans, passing the peacocks and then, before we could even blink, collapsing into our laps. Aviv was so out of breath he was practically asthmatic.

Had something happened? Was my dream vision of a still safe Israel about to be shattered?

Amir explained: “We heard the announcement. We didn’t want to be late.”

Merav added: “Aviv thought we were going to get locked in!”

"Not true!" Aviv protested.

And I thought to myself: look at that. They’ve learned an important lesson shared by both North American and Israeli culture.

That with freedom comes responsibility too.

Happy belated Fourth of July, wherever you are and however you celebrate it!