04 December 2008

A couple of nights ago, I came home from Hebrew U late at night. Walking down a paved path on campus between bushes and groundcover, I met one of these guys.

That's not my photo. I wouldn't have been able to catch the thing on camera. It was very dark out, and I was listening to This American Life on my headphones, so I almost missed him. Suddenly, just a foot or two away from me, I notice this black shadow that materializes into enormous rodent, and my heart stops. He's eating something and sniffing around like a dog, and his back and tail are covered with huge long spines.

I used to have a hedgehog. My hedgehog was adorable. The Hebrew U porcupine was not adorable. He was huge and ugly and scary as hell.

I backed slowly up the stairs on the path and up the hill, where I could watch the porcupine and catch my breath. He didn't seem to have noticed me. When he lumbered off the path and into the bushes, I marched slowly and loudly past him, so that he wouldn't think I was sneaking up on him and get startled.

The rest of the way home, I reflected on the way that I experience and process potential threats. Lots of times I've been on a bus and heard a loud bang, or walked along a road and had a guy yell at me from a car window. I get a rush of adrenaline and time slows down until the apparent threat dissolves. And then I take a moment to think about what I would have done, and I realize that there's no answer. Even if I recognized an attacker before he confronted me, I would still not be able to protect myself.

17 November 2008

feelin' groovy...

Yesterday was a huge success.
  • I've found some focus and direction in my research — I'm closing in around the idea of trust. Trust is relevant to game theory (which deals with stuff like the credibility of promises and threats) and because there's a lot of new philosophical literature about it (including feminist-y analytic philosophy, which is My Favorite).
  • I met with a philosopher here, who referred me to a couple of philosophers who are working on the rationality of trust, and suggested a few ways getting involved in department life.
  • I got a great compliment from one of my professors after seminar:
    "You're Hans's student? That explains a lot."
And then he suggested that we meet as soon as possible so that he can help me with my grad school applications. (!)
  • I came home to a lonely, lonely dinner alone... but then my roommate Niv came home and we gossipped and made sushi.
And then when I was about to go to sleep, I checked my email and
  • A girl from my philosophy class invited me to her birthday party! (Isn't that, like, the ultimate token of social acceptance?)

10 November 2008

ראש העיר

ראש עיר

עצוב הוא להיות
ראש העיר ירושלים.
נורא הוא.

איך יהיה אדם ראש עיר כזות?
מה יעשה בה?
יבנה ויבנה ויבנה.

ובלילה יקרבו אבני ההרים מסביב
אל הבתים,
כמו זאבים הבאים לילל על כלבים
שנעשי לעבדי בני האדם.

יהודה עמיחי

It's sad
To be the Mayor of Jerusalem.
It is terrible.
How can any man be the mayor of a city like that?

What can he do with her?
He will build, and build, and build.

And at night
The stones of the hills round about
Will crawl down
Towards the stone houses
Like wolves coming
To howl at the dogs
Who have become men's slaves.

Yehuda Amichai
Translated by Assia Gutmann

08 November 2008

Obama in translation

In my American-media-gorging over the past few days, I hear a lot of Americans proudly claiming that "it couldn't have happened anywhere else in the world." Out here in The World, people really are posing the question. Could what happened in the US on Tuesday have happened here in Israel?

Is that question even sensible? What would count as the "same thing" happening here?

photo credit: NYT, from a May 13 Yom Ha'atzmaut event in DC

Let me postpone the central and fascinating racial issue for the next post. Before I get there, there's another difficulty: Israel doesn't have a directly-elected head of state. Israel's president is a symbolic figurehead, elected by the Knesset, and the prime minister, though formally appointed by the president, is actually just the leader of whichever party wins the most Knesset seats. (Fascinating Fact: Israel actually implemented an American-style head-of-state direct-election system from 1996 to 2003, but then they scrapped it and reverted back to the earlier system.)

People do directly elect political parties, and some political parties are explicitly designated as representing the interests of particular minorities. For example:
So someone could plausibly suppose that a US08-equivalent Israeli election outcome would be a Knesset where a plurality of seats are held by a party like UAL, Shas or maybe Atid Echad.

In fact, it's not so at all. The demographically-oriented Israeli political parties take care of their own. So when Obama said, "I may not have won your vote, but I hear your voices, I need your help, and I will be your President too" — he was articulating an American conception of political constituency. By contrast, Israel's minority parties are understood as responsible to their electorate, and maybe even to their whole demographic base... but not to the whole country. So long as they hold few seats in Knesset and are forced to bargain hard for political gains, that's fine. But no reasonable Israelis are fantasizing about a Shas-led government.

What people are imagining is a political victory by a major party headed by a suitably-Obama-ish prime minister. And what does that PM's Obamaishness consist in? S/he's got to belong to a minority whose status in Israeli society is somehow equivalent to that of Black Americans. And that opens up a truly fascinating question: does Israel even have plausible analogues for US racial categories?

(To be continued!)

06 November 2008

04 November 2008

!כן, אנו יכולים

Working in my room, I heard a noise near the closet. I peered over anxiously, expecting a to see roach or a mouse. After looking around for a little while, I went back to work, only to see a gecko disappear under my bed.

Hm. Neither an insect nor a rodent? How am I supposed to feel about this?

Speaking of scurrying, go vote for אובאמה! Especially if you're voting in Colorado, Pennsylvania or Virginia. Here's one excellent reason. (Hit "refresh." There are more.)

In case you need something to watch until the results come in, here are of my favorite election videos:
(I'd vote for McCain as the National Court Jester. He was way funnier than Obama at the charity dinner.)

Also, more seriously:

01 November 2008

ואלס עם באשיר

Last week, my grandmother and I went to the Lev Smadar cinema in the German Colony to see Waltz with Bashir, an animated film that explores themes of war, trauma, cruelty and innocence through interviews with IDF soldiers who witnessed the Sabra and Shatila massacre.

It took me and my grandmother two tries to see this movie. The first time, the theater was actually showing Caos Calmo instead. Since the Smadar is a one-theater cinema, we bought tickets for "the movie" at the box office. We didn't realize we'd made a mistake until, several minutes into the movie, it dawned on us that the live-action Italian film we were watching really was the main feature. (20 minutes in, my grandmother leaned toward me and said, a little too loudly, "I don't think this is Waltz with Bashir!") But we decided to relax and make lemonade from the lemons we'd been dealt, as they say. We'd come back for Waltz with Bashir another time.

This is all by way of saying: Waltz with Bashir was incredible. I was expecting something like Waking Life (which I found disappointing). But in fact, this film was more like an Israeli Grave of the Fireflies. I think everyone should watch it, but particularly those of you who are interested in genocide, or the military, or Middle Eastern politics, or the psychological effects of trauma.

Here's a trailer, in case my sales pitch didn't convince you:

31 October 2008

סוף-סוף סוף לבלגן

Two days ago, I got an email from LRS, asking when she might be able to come visit. (!!) I answered:
Can I get back to you on that one?

The semester was scheduled to start on Sunday, but the university has informed the students that the semester will be delayed "until further notice."

Two years ago the whole school year was delayed by a student strike over raised tuition; last year the already-delayed school year was pushed back even further by a faculty strike over low wages. This year, the institution of higher education itself announced that it's striking for a bigger cut of the national budget, but...

Well, a few weeks ago the old Israeli prime minister (Ehud Olmert) stepped down because he was mired in a huge financial scandal, and the governing party elected a temporary prime minister (Tzipi Livni) to replace him. But she only gets to stay prime minister if she can put together a new parliamentary coalition before a certain deadline. The deadline was two days ago, and she couldn't do it, so now Olmert is back in power, leading a transitional "care-taker" government until the ad-hoc elections, which I think are scheduled to be in February (to give everyone lots of time to campaign).
[Here's the relevant Wikipedia article, with a much better explanation than mine.]

I'm pretty sure that the care-taker government does not have the authority to authorize budgetary changes. If so, the university had better not strike, since no one will have the power to meet their demands anyway! Hopefully they'll step down in the next few days, and start the semester on schedule, and then I'll know — at least tentatively!! — what this year's academic schedule is.

It turns out I was wrong about the legislative power of the care-taker government. Yesterday morning, as I got on the bus to the market, I heard the news on the bus driver's radio: "Emergency budgetary changes approved, academic semester to begin on Sunday." Sure enough, on his third day back in office, Olmert called an emergency budgetary session and approved the budgetary changes that the universities were asking for.

That's the actual budget meeting! Not my photography, haha.

Sure enough, this appeared in my email inbox yesterday night:

No explanations or apologies. Just one line:
"On Sunday, 11/2/2008, the 5769 school year will commence on schedule."

Which means my academic semester will officially begin at 4:30 on Sunday, with "Between Law and Moral and Political Philosophy." Or for short ... ?במלאפ"ף Bamla'apaf? Come to think of it, what in the world are the students going to call this class?

30 October 2008


(continued from this post.)

As you know, Bob, culture shock is a central component of the study-abroad-experience. Still, my own personal culture shock is shaped by the fact that I spent the last four years living in one of these:

The 1500 students at my liberal arts college were far from univocal when it came to identity politics, but we all had a sense of common ground to push off of in our disagreement, including a mostly-shared conception of tolerance and more-or-less similar ways of conveying respectful disagreement. Predictably enough, now that I'm out of the bubble (and outside my national bubble, and lately outside of the academic bubble) I've been finding myself frustrated with the rift between the assumptions I make and those that some of my Israeli partners in conversation make when we talk about identity politics.

What to do? I went to the HUJI library and checked out this book that my college thesis advisor wrote, called Tolerance: Between Forbearance and Acceptance.

Did you need any confirmation that I'm a philosophy dork? Now you have it.

When people find out that I study philosophy, they'll often ask what I plan to do with my education. I have a few canned responses to those kinds of questions — most of which are just cheerful concessions — but the most honest response is that philosophy clarifies my understanding of my circumstances in a way that is very important to me. The experience of reading this book here in Israel has offered me a great reminder of how important a role philosophy plays in my personal life.

A few encounters with rough edges of Israeli culture — especially in conversations about identity-politics — have left me struggling to find a balance between respect and resistance. It's sort of like learning personal-space boundaries in a new culture (how far to stand from someone when you're having a conversation, or how long to hold a handshake). Except in this case, I'm learning how far to stand from my own heart, and how much to thicken my skin, cool my blood and respond indifferently to (what-strikes-me-as) prejudice or intolerance. [Ruth blogs a similar struggle in Syria.]

The frustration and disappointment that I feel after these sorts of encounters has been hugely compounded by the fact that I don't know what kind of behavior I expect from myself in a situation like that. It's one thing to make judgments and keep them to myself. But the whole mutual-understanding-between-cultures thing seems to demand that I refrain from imposing my culture's value judgments on others. How can I refrain from making judgments without betraying my moral commitments?

And that's where this book comes in. I'm just going to be self-indulgent and quote it at length, because this particular section helped me so much to understand where my frustration was coming from, and where I hope to go from here.
To be fully tolerant does not entail that we cannot have critical reactions to the content of the attitudes, thoughts or conduct of those tolerated. All forms of tolerance necessitate having critical reaction to that which we tolerate. Otherwise, we would be either totally indifferent, complacent, world-weary, or fully accepting. Nor should "critical reactions" be limited to private, unexpressed responses. The fully tolerant do not — as do the barely and merely tolerant — deny themselves the opportunity, even the responsibility, of critically engaging those whom they tolerate, for the fully tolerant value more than that one lives one's own life. [...] It is enormously important that one's life has value, not merely that it is one's own.

Because those with a liberal temperament value individuals trying to live out their own conceptions of a good life, we might sometimes help individuals and groups pursue their good even when we find it deficient in various ways. [...] Full tolerance, therefore, involves a deep respect for the individuals and communities whose life projects are different from on's own, even where one disapproves of elements in it, even thinks that it is a generally inferior way to live. Full tolerance is not acceptance. The fully tolerant recognize, however, that it is usually difficult to remove objectionable elements from a system without destroying the whole. They will be acutely aware of what I call the "Sweater Principle": We sometimes pull on an offending bit of thread marring our sweater only to find a shapeless heap of yarn at our feet.

The fully tolerant, finally, recognize that there can be much good — though a diferent good — in attitudes, beliefs, and ways of life that we ourselves do not find congenial. It is not htat we do not see what is regrettable, say, about an Amish way of life. We see that all too clearly.What we may overlook are the incredible strengths in that way of life, the values — again, perhaps markedly different from our own, maybe even in competition with them — that it instills. Their way of life is not ours, but we see that it enables Amish to live rich, constructive live. This does not mean that the Amish themselves are imbued with a liberal temperament. Having a liberal temperament is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for living a worthwhile life. Having a liberal temperament, however, can help one see the value in ways of life and systems of belief that are not, themselves, liberal in any respect.
(Hans Oberdiek, Tolerance)

18 October 2008

B'Culture Shock [...o-b'sakit]

My last post (so long ago!) drew worried comments from some Americans who like me and worry that I might never come back. Aww! Let me assuage your fears with a blurry graph:

That's from the tail end of the ʇɥbıɹq1nɟ orientation in DC. The graph's titled "Pattern of Adjustment," and it plots Satisfaction against Time. (What are the units on the y-axis?!) As you can see, we visitors of foreign cultures predictably become infatuated with our host country, and then our moods come crashing down into the Valley of Great Dissatisfaction, from which we eventually emerge... only to plunge into the Even Deeper Valley of Horrible Sadness when we experience reverse-culture-shock back at home.

Fellow-fellowshipper Mitch-in-Egypt puts it this way — "Being in Cairo like being in a relationship with another person.... You might find it fascinating in the beginning, and then not so much later on."

It's not just Cairo, of course. I find myself marking little benchmarks-of-culture-shock.
  • Random feral cats all over the place? No longer the Cutest Infestation Ever. The more dead/starving/diseased street cats you see, the less you want to snuggle up with the healthy-looking ones.
    I was walking around Jerusalem yesterday and saw part of a cat lying in the middle of an intersection. There was nothing cute about it.

  • The thrill of public transportation? Basically gone. I think that I lost my appetite for bus travel after I spent 50 minutes shivering in the windy Jerusalem dusk while I waited for line 17, which (it turns out) takes the longest possible route between Beit Hakerem and Rechavia. I could have walked it and gotten there almost twice as fast.

    And the classic Israeli game of shoving your way onto the bus becomes much less fun after you lose, and get stuck waiting another twenty minutes for the next bus.

  • Gefilte fish. I do not have very much to say about it, except that I really hope I stop being sick of it in time for Passover.

    That's my grandma, making gefilte fish by grinding up fish into little shivering worm-like things. Honestly, my grandmother's gefilte fish are amazing, but we ate them for breakfast lunch and dinner throughout the עשרת ימי תשובה period.

  • Aggressive flirting from random dudes, especially dudes who are trying to sell you something? Not even mildly amusing anymore.

    Except, okay, there was one time when I got on a train and I really wanted to be left alone, so I sat across from an oldish guy who was wearing a white shirt and a black velvet kippah, which normally signals a strong predisposition against chatting up girls in tanktops. As I sit down, the dude announces a heavy Russian accent that his name is Moshe and he "needs to get married very urgently," and gives me his card, which is actually just a piece of cut-out printer paper advertising his services as a "therapeutic masseuse for men only." That... was pretty amusing. But still: random dudes, cut it out!

    If you don't know why I chose a photo from Machane Yehuda for this one, you have probably never been a 20-something-year-old woman at Machane Yehuda. For every obnoxious remark from a sales-dude, I think a customer-lady should be entitled to a date. (The fruit kind, not the other thing.)

But most of all I am getting worn down by a bunch of conversations I keep having, which generate a lot of friction and never seem to get anywhere. Chief among these are:
  • Arabs / Muslims / Palestineans: their dispositions, their cultural contributions, etc.
  • Feminism.
  • התבוללות (intermarriage between Jews and gentiles).
I don't want to avoid these conversations — and anyway, I can't — but I need to find a way to have them more productively.
(To be continued!)

29 September 2008

[ʃaˈna toˈva] ! שנה טובה

Big transitions! On Tuesday, it rained for the first time since I've been in Israel. Wednesday was the last day of Ulpan, on Thursday we took our final Hebrew exams, Friday I started moving into my new apartment, yesterday I finally got my apartment keys before hopping on a bus to Tel Aviv and a train to Binyamina, where my uncle and aunt picked me up and drove me to their house in Zichron Ya'akov. Tonight we're driving to my uncle's wife's sister's house for a huge dinner, to celebrate the eve of the 5769th anniversary of the day that God created Man.

I hate to sound like an Aliyah recruiter, but I have to admit that the weeks leading up to Rosh Hashana have never felt as special out there in the diaspora as they do here. It's like Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year's all rolled up in one, except that it's surprisingly uncommericialized, and it's Jewish. The media's buzzing with retrospectives and excitement about the future, the roads are clogged with cars headed to family reunions, the supermarkets are stocked with holiday food like pomogranates and honey cakes, and everyone greets everyone with well-wishes for the new year. ("A sweet and rainy year!" is one I've heard more than once.)

I've had a mix of very good and very bad luck leading into the holiday. The good news is that I'm getting to celebrate with both sides of the family. I'm having dinner with my mom's family tonight, which means I'm missing my dad's family's R.H. Eve dinner in Mode'in (near Jerusalem). But tomorrow, on the first day of Rosh Hashana, my uncle's driving me to Jerusalem to visit his father (my grandfather) — and then I'll spend the rest of the holiday with my dad's side of the family. A stunt like that would normally be impossible to pull off, since public transportation doesn't run during the holiday. (Classic.)

Another really cool detail in this plan is that I'll get to see both a religious and a secular take on the holiday. My aunt's sister, who's hosting tonight's dinner, is a formerly-secular now-Orthodox Jew (i.e. חוזרת בתשובה). So tonight we'll be ushering in the new year by The Book, with candles and kiddush and prayers and everything, whereas tomorrow's dinner will be more mainstream Israeli. Other than gefilte fish, I'm not really sure what to expect from either one.

The bad news is that I managed to hit my first serious bout of food poisoning just as I got on the bus to Zichron yesterday. So I arrived here a few pounds lighter, trembling a little, whereas my breakfast, lunch, and previous night's dinner didn't make it as far as Binyamina. My aunt graciously sent me to bed early with a mug of boullion-chicken-soup. (Chicken soup for stomachaches must be an American thing, cause my aunt was puzzled by the idea. "Really? Whatever you want, but I'd never eat that stuff. You know it has no nutritional value, right?") I woke up in the wee hours, when my digestive system decided to side with her, against me and the soup. "Don't worry, metuka," said Noam, on the phone from Jerusalem. "Your body is getting rid of all the bad stuff in preparation for the new year. Next year you'll feel much better." "Next year," I said, "we'll sit on the porch and count the migrating birds." "Isn't it great to talk about next year, knowing that it starts tomorrow?"

Anyway, ה'תשס"ט hasn't rolled in yet, and I'm already feeling much better. Today, I've been taking it easy, trying to get rehydrated. This Israeli household, like every other, is equipped with Wissotzky tea to the exception of any other brand. But I have to admit — Wissotzky Bedouin Chai? With soy milk? Delicious.

26 September 2008

You know...

If I had one wish that I could wish this High-Holiday season, it would be for all the children in the Land of Israel — Palestinean or Israeli, Sephardic or Ashkenazi, Druze, Mormon or Brezlov — to join hands and sing together in the spirit of harmony and peace.

But if I had two wishes I could make this High-Holiday season, the first would be for all the children to join hands and sing in the spirit of harmony and peace. And the second would be for public transportation on Saturday.

22 September 2008

There was a terrorist attack in Jerusalem a few minutes ago, near the old city. I have nothing clever or interesting to say about it. I just wanted to let you know that I'm fine.

19 September 2008

The big shot of the Babylon-Jerusalem Axis

My grandmother is blasting Barbara Streisand. Apparently love will be the gift you give yourself? Not earplugs?

My grandmother has been sharing her house with me for almost two months now, and it should surprise no one that our 58-year generation-gap is sometimes difficult to bridge. Some days I come home and find that the political analysis playing in the kitchen is competing with news on television, commercial jingles from the bathroom, and nostalgic Israeli tunes wafting out of my grandmother's bedroom. "Are you hungry?" she shouts over the noise, beaming and extending a spoonful of beige.

So I've been surreptitiously turning off radios when she leaves the room, and she's been surreptitiously folding my clothes while I'm away at school. It's not really a solution, but it's a perfectly good band-aid.

[By the way, as I type this, my grandmother tells me that she's going downstairs to visit a neighbor. Excuse me while I shut off the Barbara Streisand CD and throw it out the window.]

For now — Baya's back home, and Barbara Steisand's back at full volume, struggling to be heard over the news.

I'm going to Zichron.

18 September 2008

Faux Amis Friday

Welcome to the latest issue of Duckrabbit in Jerusalem, the blog where we wonder what's going on with רוני, who is Just Too Busy To Tell Us! Today's episode is about faux amis, and it goes out to everyone who's been putting up with my unresponsiveness to emails, facebook messages and wall posts. Soon I'll move to an apartment with internet, and things will be better! Until then... faux amis.

Faux amis means "false friends" in French. That's what I hope people don't conclude about me when I exercise poor internet ettiquette! Heh. Faux amis also means "words in different languages that sound like they should have the same meaning, but don't." Second-language learners find faux amis everywhere. They help us stay awake during language classes.

Hebrew and Engish have a surprisingly long chain of faux amis threaded through the pronouns. An American rabbi wrote a cutesy Abbott-and-Costello tribute about it:
Abbott: הוא is he.
Costello: Who is he?
Abbott: Precisely.
Until someone pointed those out to me, I never noticed them, and I still don't think they sound that much alike. Anyway, there are a lot of crazier faux amis for advanced Hebrew-learners to giggle about in Ulpan. Ahem:
  • Nylons (ניילטנים) are the plastic bags you get from the grocery store.
  • Purée (פירה) is mashed potatoes.
  • Bagel (בייגלה) means bagel, but it also means pretzel.
  • Philadelphia (פילדלפיה) means Philadelphia, but it's also the generic name for cream cheese.
  • A trapeze (טרפז) is a trapezoid.
  • An American exam (מבחן אמריקני) is a multiple-choice test.
  • A close (קלוז) is a fill-in-the-blank exercise.
  • Your lose (לו"ז) is your schedule.
  • A sniff (סניף) is an outlet of a business.
  • A filipina (פיליפינה) may be someone from the Phillipines, or she might just be anyone whose job it is to take care of old people. [!עיין ערך גיזאנות]
  • Sponge (ספונג'ה) is the name of the job where you clean other people's houses.
  • Mommy (מאמי) and boobie (בובי) are terms of endearment.
  • The vestigal structure attached to the end of your colon is called your appendicitis (אפנדציטיס). If it gets infected, you have appendetzit (אפנדציט).
  • Sylvester (סילבסטר) is the name of the holiday you celebrate on December 31st. ("New Year's Eve" is the name of the holiday we'll celebrate on September 29th.)
And finally...
  • Rashomon (רשומון) is the name of an important Japanese movie, but it's also the Hebrew word for "blog."
I've collected some more, too, but
From Jerusalem, Israel, I'm Duckrabbit and this has been Faux Amis Friday. Come back next week for reduplicative onomotopoetics! (And possibly news from my exciting life?) Same bat time, same bat rashomon.

08 September 2008

Chocolate milk in a plastic bag

Instead of running to catch the bus this morning, Yahm and I hopped into the grocery store and got ourselves some Israeli staples. As we waited the next bus to crawl up the hill, I drank my first-ever shoko besakit. This, לכאורה, makes my life complete.

28 August 2008

This is just to say...

I'm going to have to get back to you later with that discussion of Hebrew's racial taxonomy. I intended to post it tonight but
  1. I'm on my way to close the night with Yahm at עיר הבירה. Also
  2. I've been reading excerpts from this book which deal with demographic category-terms in Hebrew, and I'm beginning to understand that the weirdness of Hebrew's racial/ethnic/national taxonomy comes from the prejudicial (il)logic that structures in the very semantics of these categories. In brief — the topic is much bigger and much more interesting than I thought. Wait a little longer and I'll tell you all about it.
  3. Also, I want to tell you about this very-racially-problematic movie we watched in Ulpan today. Magical Negro + temptress-female-figures + ambivalence toward the K-word for the win? But meanwhile
  4. עיר הבירה!

27 August 2008

שדות מוקשים סמנטים

(continued from here)

Political correctness is a hot topic here in the Ulpan. By my lights, it’s incredibly important to spend class time developing a politically-sensitive ear, because Hebrew's ֿsemantic [mine]field is studded with complicated and potentially hurtful connotations.

For example, people here use two different words for Palestineans: “falestinim” and “falestinayim.” I’ve heard that among younger Hebrew speakers, the first pronunciation connotes support for the Palestinian people, whereas the second pronunciation is either neutral or negative in connotation. The city-name of Haifa does a similar sort of thing. Some speakers use the original Arabic pronunciation (which sounds very close to the English). Others use the Hebrew-ified version: “chey-fa.” You can probably guess what pragmatic payloads those pronunciations tow.

Students in advanced Ulpan classes need to learn able to control the allegiances expressed by our word choices. But it’s not always clear how to do so. Sometimes my American political awareness serves me well: I have no problem saying מאיותגר (challenged) instead of מפגר (retarded) — and, indeed, avoiding both of them and using a more specific word if I can.

But often enough, my political conscience seems to misfire. For example, Hebrew uses adjectives that express group membership as singular nouns to refer to individual people — “that Sephardic” — and as plural nouns to refer to groups — “those Filipinos.” In English, I would absolutely never use an expression like “that Black,” or “those gays.” In Hebrew, even conscientious leftists seem to regard those expressions as wholly unproblematic — just like “that Muslim” or “those Americans.” (And even there, I prefer “that Muslim guy” or “those American tourists.”)

It gets worse. “Those Filipinos” are only sometimes an ethnic group. Hebrew also uses “Filipino” to refer to anyone who takes care of elderly people in private homes, regardless of their race. Apparently, an overwhelming majority of Filipino residents of Israel work in those sorts of caretaking jobs, and conversely, occupants of those jobs are overwhelmingly of Philippine descent. Modern Hebrew has evidently integrated that trend right into the lexicon. Problematic? (!)

Here's another example. I asked one of my cousins how to say “queer” in Hebrew. His first suggestion was הומו (“homo”) — a word that leaves out most of the queer spectrum, especially when you consider that only men can be “homo-im” here. Then he suggested LGBT. (In Hebrew, that comes out as a pronounceable acronym: להב"ט (“lahabt”). But it still doesn't include plenty of the gender identities and sexual identities included under the queer umbrella. And what's more, it doesn't do well as a label for an individual. It makes sense to talk about a lahabt movement or march or support group, but an individual can only be הומו, לסבית, טרנס/ית או ביסקסואל/ית.

And that doesn't even begin to touch the issues arising from Hebrew's gendered grammar, or the taxonomic mess of its racial/ethnic/national terminology. More on that tomorrow.

26 August 2008

תקינות פוליטית

Alongside regular Hebrew classes, students in the advanced levels of Ulpan are required to take an additional course called “Textim,” where we read and discuss longer texts on some particular topic. I signed up for Textim in political science, which means that alongside everyday phrases like “prescriptive Hebrew grammar” (עברית תקנית), “personality cult” (פולחן אישיות) and “blood libel” (עלילת דם), I’m learning how to say “NGO” (ארגון לא ממשלתי) and “multilateral agreement” (אמנה).

Incidentally, my baby cousin Alma says “multilateral agreement” instead of “tomato.” It's easier to pronounce!

In Textim today, we talked about the two different meanings of the word להכיר, “to recognize.” Just as in English...
  • you can recognize a person. Hebrew expresses this meaning by using להכיר with the direct-object marker, את.
  • or, you can recognize the legitimacy of a claim, a governing body, or a movement. In Hebrew, you’d use להכיר with “in,” -ב.
“Can anyone give me an example?” the teacher asked. No one spoke up, so he suggested, “you can say, the state of Massachusetts recognizes in homosexual marriages. Or, the United States recognizes in China’s government.”
Then a student from South Africa piped up with, “the Palestinians don't recognize in Israel’s legitimacy?”
He winced and then smiled. “Eh, no. Say Hamas instead — you’ll have said something true.”
The girl answered, “Oh, excuse me. That was —” she switched to English “politically incorrect.”
“No.” he said. “It’s not politically incorrect, it’s factually incorrect. Let’s move on.”

12 August 2008

take every word you have given me back to the dictionaries

If you had contemplated the victim’s face
And thought it through, you would have remembered your mother in the
Gas chamber, you would have been freed from the reason for the rifle
And you would have changed your mind: this is not the way
to find one’s identity again.
(From Under Siege, by Mahmoud Darwish, translated by Marjolijn De Jager)

Last night, I said goodbye to my high school friends Tim and Loranne over Taybehs at Uganda. Tim has been studying Hebrew at Beit Ha'am this summer (back again after studying Arabic at Birzeit last summer); Loranne arrived just this week to visit her uncle in Beit Hanina and to hang out with Tim here in Jerusalem. Tomorrow morning they'll both be heading back to the US. (إن شاء الله / בעזרת השם — Loranne has a foreign passport and a Palestinian last name, which puts her squarely in a new-ish category of suspicious travellers, by Israel's lights. Things would be worse for her if she were a British-passport-holder travelling alone, but we should still cross our fingers for her after the trouble she had getting in.)

Last week, Tim and Loranne and I rented a car and hopped down to the Dead Sea together. Then, over the weekend, I visited [Fellow-Fellowshipper] Cheryl in Tel Aviv, [college friend] Shadi in Haifa and [cousin] Arik back in TA. (I'm all over the place! When do I find time to do Ulpan homework? —— If you answered "on the commute to Ulpan," you are correct!)

11 August 2008

Солженицын & درويش

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn died about a week ago. Solzhenitsyn is close to the hearts of many Israelis, but my family has a closer connection than most. The legendary (Israelis may substitute "מיתולוגי") author met my grandfather in a gulag, where both of them were serving life sentences. Later, Solzhenitsyn would even mention my grandfather by name in The Gulag Archipelago. (I'd give you the page number, but I left my copy at home.) Even when my grandfather came to live in Israel, he and Solzhenitsyn continued to exchange letters from time to time.

After Solzhenitsyn's death, the front pages of all of the Israeli newspapers were covered with his name and his pictures, and radio and television programming was broadcast in his honor.

Mahmoud Darwish died three days ago, and the news media hardly responded. Due respect, but Darwish is local! The only mention I heard of Darwish's death was one brief summary of his work on the news, jammed in the middle of Olympicsy broadcasting.

06 August 2008

The famous סדובסקים

Yesterday I met Edna U-M, my academic adviser at HUJI. Among other things, she told me that she and another professor placed bets on my gender — he was sure that I was a guy, and she hadn't even considered the possibility. But after hearing him refer to me in the masculine, she checked back over the emails I'd sent her, and found that there was no indication. "After all," she explained, "yours is a non-gender-specific name."

Okay, I should probably be over it by now, but I still get such a kick out of the fact that my weirdo first name is familiar here.

So you can just imagine my emotions about what came next. I mentioned that I'm staying with my grandmother, and she asked, "the grandmother on dad's side?"

"So, סדובסקי?"
"Are you from those סדובסקים?"

Seriously! I'd only heard about this phenomenon. When my father and his brothers and sister were in school, the first time the teachers called attendance, they always got asked that question. Here in Israel, people are incredibly appreciative of obstetricians — or at least, they were in the heydey of Saba's hospital. So even today, in Jerusalem, we're those סדובסקים.

I suddenly remembered that when I was applying for my scholarship, my father told me we had a family connection to Edna U-M. My grandfather had delivered her kids.

"Oh, right, we have that connection..." I started, but she said,
"No, no, personal connection or not — everyone in knows the סדובסקים."

It turns out that Saba Arie (my great-grandfather) was the doctor who delivered Edna, and my grandfather, Eliahu, delivered all four of her kids. She even remembered my grandfather's early death — from cancer, when I was about seven years old. "It was such a shock in Jerusalem, when Eliahu died. After all, Arie lived to an old age.... He was a big man, Eliahu, wasn't he?" she smiled, "I'll admit that I was a bit afraid of him."

So I told her the story about the Haddassah nurse: When my mom was a patient in my grandfather's ward at Haddassah, she asked a nurse for some little thing, and the nurse said that she'd have to check with Professor סדובסקי and he probably wouldn't allow it. (Later, the nurse noticed the last name on my mother's medical chart and begged her not to tell.)

That night, I got more stories about those famous doctors. Baya told me about Saba's irreverant bedside manner. (To find out if a patient was lactating, he asked, "How's the Tnuva?") I never knew that he'd delivered all five of her kids. "He was the best. When I had the twins, people asked me why I'm going to such an old obstetrician. But I knew he was still the best. His hands were steady and strong. Our twins set the record for the biggest twins born in Haddassah."

01 August 2008

Political Adventuring

photo from Activestills

A couple of days ago, I tagged along to a rally-against-racism with my dad's leftist younger brother. The two of us joined up with a group of Jews and Palestinians gathered outside of one of the Hebrew University dorms in Kiryat Yovel, where an Arab HUJI student had been beaten up by some racist Jewish teenagers on July 16th. There was a little bit of speech-making and a little bit of shouting slogans in Hebrew and Arabic, some of which even rhymed. (Israelis are all about the rhyming slogans.) Incredibly, a couple of people showed up to oppose the rally, yelling about how Jerusalem belongs only to the Jews, and so on. And the cops were there, taking pictures of everyone who came. But as protests go, it was a very safe one — well within the green line and addressing what should have been a completely uncontroversial issue. (As opposed to the evacuation of the settlements, which... well, that should also be completely uncontroversial. But racist violence against students is really in a league of its own.)

Today, my uncle took me to visit Beit Said, the house in Jerusalem that was once owned by Edward Said's aunt, in which the famous postcolonial theorist spent a few of his early years, and which the Saids also rented out to Martin Buber! Beit Said is just an apartment today (10 Brenner Street), whose current tenants have purportedly heard of Said but don't really know anything about him. There's no plaque or anything. Anyway, Brenner street is just a short walk from my uncle's house, which is right around the corner from my grandmother's. We brought my baby cousin, who devoted some thought to the role of orientalism in the Israeli public consciousness before toddling around the playground across the street.

Who's lived here? Martin BUber, remember?

Moving in

I'm finally moving my clothes out of the suitcases and into the closet. (Well, בערך. One suitcase is being turned into an underwear drawer, and the winter-clothes suitcase is staying packed for now.)

What took me so long? Well, part of it is my laziness and insensitivity to clutter. But part of it is that there just isn't much room here. Living spaces in Jerusalem tend to be small and cramped. My room here at my grandmother's house is actually well-sized — about as big as my sophomore year double at Swarthmore. But when the fold-out couch is folded out, a lot of the space becomes difficult to use. More importantly, the bookshelves, closets and drawers are almost all full, and all of the horizontal surfaces are piled with my grandma's things. (I should add that I really do not mean to sound like I'm complaining about my completely-free NSA housing! Anyway, I should be moving in to an apartment of my own soon enough.)

The big hassle of the past few days has been getting a cell phone. Here in Israel, the phone itself doesn't come with the cell phone plan, and the cheapest machine costs ₪500 (almost $150)! So I'd like to get a cell phone from the someone in the family instead. Now it's looking like one of the cousins on my mom's side has a girlfriend who has a phone that she doesn't need, but the battery is someplace else, so she can pick up the battery and drop off the phone somewhere in Tel Aviv this weekend, and then maybe I can pick it up on Sunday if I go to TA with an aunt from my dad's side. (Oh, and by the way — Sunday is not part of the weekend. The weekend is Friday and Saturday. So Thursday night here is equivalent Friday night in the US. Fact!) If all of that goes according to plan, I'll have the machine in my hands. And THEN I have to choose a cell phone plan. COMPLICATED.

Life's been a little stressful and a little noisy. (My grandmother listens to the radio at all hours, and I'm finding that the constant loud-and-fast stream of Hebrew news commentary and radio jingles gets me edgy.) But tonight is Friday night, so things are supposed to quiet down in our ultra religious corner of the not-quite-Halachic-State. נחיה ונראה (we'll live and we'll see, ≈ time will tell). Look for more frequent updates soon!

27 July 2008

What will be, will be; what was was, was was.

There's a lot to tell about and my connection to the internet is tenuous. So I'll skip right past Zichron, Tzfat, Beit Yanai, the babies toddling underfoot, the waves that knocked us over, the explanations and translations and pronunciations and the stories -- sad, romantic, old and new -- and say just this: the family is on its way home to the US, and I'm staying here. Which means that ma shehaya haya ve'ma shehiyeh hiyeh (traslated brilliantly by my father in the title of this post.)

Also, it takes FOREVER to type on an iPod....

22 July 2008

Today, we climbed Masada went down to the Dead Sea by way of Jericho. (Pictures soon, really!)

We only heard about today's terrorist attack when we got back. More talk of punishing the family on the news.

I have to run, but there's much more to tell. I'll update as soon as I can....

20 July 2008


Here I am! (can you see the jetlag in my eyes?)

The flight was sleepless, but my neighbor was a nice Israeli man who said that my Hebrew is fantastic (but that I should say anatzel et hahisdamnut — "take advantage of this opportunity" — instead of ecach et hahisdamnut — "take this opportunity," as in English.)

Anyway — we just had dinner at my grandmother's house, with almost everyone. Kisses, rejoicing, hora NTBG-im,* hora jetlagim, etc.

*see WWZ's explanation & commentary on "NTBG" as an abbreviation for Ben Gurion Airport, here.

The Israel Museum
The Kotel
The Old City
Mt. Scopus
Armon haNatziv in Ramat Rachel
Jerusalem downtown
for dinner, Steikiat Chatzot (Midnight Steakhouse?) for me'orav (cat meat??)


18 July 2008

desert island books, reprise

For those still wondering, here's my final selection of five books to bring to Israel:

Sorry, uh, eight. Not five. Isn't that what I said?

Yeah, I failed in my mission to narrow down my books. But hey, I'm leaving the giant game theory textbook at home, so at least there's that. Next mission: to pack fewer pairs of shoes than books.

(1 day & 7 hours left.)

16 July 2008

desert island books

The suitcases are filling up, and I still haven't touched my bookshelves. Since I'll have internet access and borrowing privileges at HUJI, I have every reason to minimize my book-transporting. My goal is to bring no more than five books. But which five?

One book that's coming with me is שבע מידות רעות by מאיה ערד (Sheva Midot Ra'ot, or Seven Sins, by Maya Arad). This is the Israeli novel I've been trying to slog through this summer. (The slogging has been so slow that I've put it down to read two other books before even getting as far as page 15. Especially unimpressive given that the book starts on page 11. But I'm trying!)

A second book I'm probably bringing is Contractarianism/Contractualism, a collection of essays edited by Stephen Darwall. I just need to check whether those articles are available online.

And I also want to bring my bilingual book of poems by Yehuda Amichai, if I can squeeze it in.

So that leaves me with two or three more book-shaped slots in my luggage. Some candidates:
  • Philosophical Investigations, Ludwig Wittgenstein
  • The Sources of Normativity, Christine Korsgaard
  • Emotional Reason, Bennett Helm
  • The Rationality of Emotion, Ronald de Sousa
  • Practical Reason and Norms, Joseph Raz
  • The Morality of Freedom, Joseph Raz
  • Human Agency and Language, Charles Taylor
  • Games of Strategy, eds. Dixit and Skeath (so huge, it should count as two books)
Before you go judging me for my selection of desert island books, I should mention that this list has already been pared down. I've eliminated all the books that I would have brought purely as comfort-objects: books that aren't related to Israel or to my research in any way, but that I just want to have around.

What I need to do next is find my way to the HUJI library and the Library of the Knesset websites, to check which of these books will be available to me in Israel. There is reason to be pessimistic: Judy tells me that HUJI's library system lost some funding battles, leaving it unable to stack its shelves adequately. Furthermore, for some of these books, library copies won't do me much good, since what I really need is the notes in the margins of my well-loved copies.

(3 days and 5 hours left.)

ETA: Fellow fellowshipper Steve's response at Blog For No One.

13 July 2008


Home again in Pittsburgh. I am pleased to say that I am now fully oriented toward the Middle East and North Africa. I got to spend a couple of days hanging out with Lisa and wandering through lovely Bethesda, followed by three days of intense bonding with ʇɥbıɹq1nɟ-ers whose awesomeness reaches a level that can be matched only by their astounding brilliance and physical attractiveness. (Or maybe I'm just saying that because they could be reading? Judge for yourself:)
More pictures will hopefully surface soon. Meanwhile, visit their blogs!

At the orientation, we bloggers were asked to post a disclaimer:
This blog is not an official Department of State website. The views and information presented here are my own and do not represent the ʇɥbıɹq1nɟ program or the Department of State.
So, there's my disclaimer. (Consider it used and not just mentioned.)

We were also given the option to register our blogs with the official ʇɥbıɹq1nɟ website. I still haven't decided whether I want to do that yet. In the meantime, I'm using upside-down letters to make my keywords a little less google-able.

And now? I have lots more to do and no time at all! If you've got any good advice (or just good wishes), send them my way.

(6 days left.)

ETA: Fellow fellowshippers Steve and Nate steal my awesome photo collage! I hereby retaliate by stealing Nate's adorable turn of phrase, "fellow fellowshippers."

10 July 2008

ʇɥbıɹq1nɟ Orientation

Finished out the first day of orientation with a glass of beer in a DC bar; having a blast with the other Israeli ʇɥbıɹq1nɟ-ers, more excited than ever.

(10 days left.)

05 July 2008


Just arrived at Lisa's house in בית חסדא (Beit Chesda, sometimes called Bethesda, Maryland). This is the third leg of my three-legged trip. I spent this weekend in Vermont at Dan and Lucy's wedding, and spent the week before visiting Swarthmore/Philadelphia and crashing with Micaya. 12,000 words ≈

(More wedding pics will be coming soon, but for now...)

(15 days left.)

02 July 2008

Bulldozer attack in Jerusalem

A Palestinian construction worker rammed a bulldozer into cars and a bus on Jaffa Road today. (Read about it here.) People are saying that he probably wasn't affiliated with any terrorist organization. (Some organizations are taking credit for his attack, but that always happens.)

The attacker, Hossam Dawiath, was a 31-year-old Arab East-Jerusalemite with two kids. He was killed by police. According to the article,
Mr Olmert has begun efforts to raze Dawaith’s home, and stop social security benefits to his family.
Why are they destroying his house? Did his family have those social security benefits in virtue of him, or in their own right?
This whole situation is very scary. And of course it's extremely bad news for everyone.
“We are trying to convince the people that we need a ceasefire with Hamas in Gaza and that we need to strengthen Fatah in the West Bank... each attack furthers the public perception that no peace can be established with the Arabs,” said an official from Israel’s Foreign Ministry.

(17 days left.)

27 June 2008

Good bye, St. Louis!

As I type up this post, I am sitting on a stool in the kitchen, in house my family's lived in for 15 years, which we sold today. This stool is the only chair left in the house, and it's a little too short for the kitchen counter — the only tabletop left in the house. Beside my laptop sits a carton of warm orange juice. We no longer have a fridge. It's so empty in here that my typing reverberates.

But... I'm not typing right now. I typed it yesterday. (Blogger lets you post to the future.) When this post appears, I am doing this:
Ridin' in the backseat with my dog, singin' along with mix CDs that I made for the road.

(ETA: Arrived safe in Pittsburgh!)

26 June 2008

Zionism: third installment

(This post is the third in a series that starts here.)

There are lots of Zionisms out there. (Wikipedia lists Labor Zionism, General Zionism, Revisionist Zionism and Religious Zionism; I can think of a few more flavors besides.) I think all Zionists consider themselves ideological supporters of Israel in a respect that they identify as important; besides that, they have surprisingly little in common.

For example, some Zionists believe that diaspora Jews should immigrate to Israel; others believe that Zionism has nothing to do with non-Israelis. Some Zionists focus on agriculture; some connect Zionism to big industry and investment; some understand it as confined to the political realm. Some Zionist ideologies (like mine) demand withdrawal from the territories and dismantlement of the settlements... but those settlers live according to a Zionism that says different.

Why do I consider myself a Zionist? Two reasons:
  1. Ethnic Jews are still not safe in much of the world. I think it is important that the global community protect freedom of movement for people born within oppressive regimes. One solution is a state which offers special rights to persecuted people (particularly, rights to quick citizenship and benefits for new immigrants). A state which offers these sorts of rights to ethnic Jews is a Jewish state.

    Israeli law facilitates freedom of movement for diaspora Jews by offering all Jews a unique cluster of rights, largely designed to ease their absorption into Israel's national community. Because I think this is a good (though of course a non-optimal) solution to the problem of global antisemitism, I support the existence of a Jewish state. This is a Zionist claim.

  2. Alongside my abstractly pro-Jewish-state committments, I also have a more concretely pro-Israel committments. I identify with Israel in a way that engages me personally in the shared project of improving Israel. Let me explain what I mean by that.

    I have a non-optional commitment to improving the United States, by virtue of my being a member of this national community — particularly, one with lots of undeserved political & social power. Although I am a citizen of Israel, I think that my personal involvement in the improvement of Israel is (more) optional, because I am not quite a member of the Israeli national community. The fact that my identification with Israel overextends my membership in the Israeli national community makes me a Zionist. (It also fuels my commitment to justice in Israel, and thereby, to a political stance that many people would label anti-Zionist.)
Both of these thoughts are in need of reconsideration and refinement. I'm really hoping that the coming year will offer me lots of chances to discuss & clarify my thinking. The blog can also be an avenue for that sort of discussion — so, please comment!

25 June 2008

Zionism: second installment

(This post is a continuation of yesterday's.)

I'd like to be able to give you my sophisticated analysis of the Palestinian/Israeli conflict. The truth is, I'm vastly underinformed about the historical, political, economic and sociological details — not for lack of information, but because I don't trust my ability to evaluate a lot of the information I have.

What I do know is that when it comes to the P/I conflict, my political priorities are in roughly the same place that they always are. I tend to be moved by arguments that appeal to individual rights, especially when they focus on the rights of the least-advantaged members of society, and especially especially when they focus on making sure that the least-advantaged possess the preconditions for secure cultural identity and political participation.

What I am not moved by are arguments that appeal to religious prerogative, ancient-historical entitlement, military security, economic efficiency, and personal safety for social elites. (At least, not when individual rights are at stake.) I won't deny that these blinders of mine are problematic. It's easy for me to blow off economic arguments; my income won't dry up if the market takes a hit. To blow off military security, given that I will never be called to serve in the armed forces [more on this another time]. To blow off terrorist attacks when I spent the spring of 2002 safe in St. Louis. Still....

My senior year in high school, I read A People's History of the United States in a US history class. The chapter on the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 60s ("Or Does It Explode?") changed the way I thought about politics. No more a glassy-eyed adherent to an ideology of nonviolence and conciliation, I found myself much more sympathetic to social movements that employed violence.

I had wanted a civil rights narrative centered on a figure with whom I identified: the Caring White Person. I wanted to believe that the movement succeeded when the tender hearts of White People Like Me were roused by photographs of nonthreatening protesters — Black students who reached across the racial divide and got on the wrong side of the fire hose to testify their faith in our mutual humanity. I did not want rights to have been won by angry rhetoricians (mean!) or urban rioters (scary!). Frankly, I didn't want rights to have been won by Black activists at all. I wanted those rights to have been conferred by Benevolent Whites.

Zinn's book knocked a little bit of sense into my narcissistic head. It got me thinking that maybe it was sometimes important for people to take power, rather than just ask politely and wait to receive it. With all due respect to the nonviolent component of the movement, Zinn directed my eyes beyond MLK and Rosa Parks, to Malcolm X and Huey Newton.

The analogy between the American Civil Rights Movement and the P/I conflict is easy to overstate. The histories are different, the cultures are different, and the demands are different; the violence of Palestinian militants needs to be understood on its own terms, and not merely as a Middle Eastern analogue to Black Power. But what I'm trying to say is this: I used to think that non-state-sanctioned violence was so unambiguously immoral that it settled the case. I thought that the government should ensure, at any cost, that buses never explode.

I don't think like that anymore. I'm realizing more and more that feelings of entitlement to security and my confidence that the-authorities-are-our-friends come easy for me because US racism works in my favor. That's why security-based political arguments generally leave me cold, and probably should leave me still colder.

My understanding of the P/I conflict guides my concern to the Palestinian side. I do not know enough to make any strong claims about how, when, or precisely where the Palestinian state should be established, but I believe that the answers to those questions depend on the what and why. I am convinced that the fundamental issue here is the Palestinians' need to be free from oppression. In this context, the Israelis' need to be safe from violence takes on only a reflected, pragmatic importance.

And yet, despite all of that, I consider myself a Zionist? More tomorrow!