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!