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On the Importance of Arabic

Israel is in the Middle East. The Middle East is largely an Arabophone region. These two facts are undisputed. However, Israel insists on behaving like a western outpost in the Orient. While it does so with regards to its foreign policy, it is equally true, and just as foolhardy, with regards to domestic issues.

While many Israelis would like to be European or American, they are not. Modern Israeli culture and behavior is derived from numerous sources, and has morphed into something new.

The current level of language instruction in Israel has a lot of room for improvement. Though not as bad as English, Hebrew language instruction in Israel is poor, to say the least. Instead of improving, Israel’s Ministry of Education has decided that regional language skills are unimportant. As of last year, Arabic has been completely dropped from the mandatory core curriculum.

This was not in order to invest more in to Hebrew or English instruction. There was no pedagogical reason for this decision. This step down in Israeli education was “motivated by an effort to create a curriculum acceptable to ultra-Orthodox schools.” This capitulation to narrow political interests is corruption, pure and simple.

Things are different on the other side of the ocean. Instead of imparting the language of the Jewish people to the next generation, some Jewish day schools are expanding their language departments to include Arabic.

This is the right move in the wrong place. I am not saying Jewish students should not learn Arabic. They should – in Israel. The problem is prioritization. Adding another language to the mix will only serve to dilute the already lacking Hebrew instruction offered by the Jewish educational system in America. In other words, first Hebrew, and only then Arabic.

Israeli education needs to strive for nothing less than excellence. Excellence in today’s Middle East requires the knowledge of Arabic. Instead of eliminating three years of Arabic study from the curriculum, language instruction in Israel needs to be placed front and center. Along with Hebrew and English, students should begin Arabic studies in first grade, if not beforehand.

I am in no way advocating forgoing Hebrew in favor of Arabic. Nor do I think Arabic is more important than English. The three languages are not mutually exclusive. Nevertheless, understanding, and playing by “house rules” in the Middle East requires knowing the language. That language is Arabic.

On the Importance of Hebrew

One of the most important steps in pre-statehood Zionism was the revival of the Hebrew language. In 2,000 years of exile the Jewish people has developed many languages of its own, but they do not serve an overarching national purpose. Yiddish and Ladino have an important cultural and historical place, but do not unify us as a nation. Only Hebrew has done that.

Bible study and Hebrew go hand in hand. Forty years ago the very idea of “translating” the Bible into modern Hebrew would have been unthinkable. Tanakh was once widely studied, as an important Jewish text, and the Hebrew language flourished.

Today, however, that has all gone by the wayside. A declaration that “we are all Pinchas” does not cause an uproar, because most simply do not understand the implication. Equality and mediocrity have taken the place of excellence. Dumbing down of primary education for the sake of a lowest common denominator is taking a serious toll on Israeli students. The most basic of grammar mistakes are extremely common. In fact, speaking proper Hebrew in Israel, of all places, is likely to elicit bemused looks.

This is not just an Israeli problem, but a global Jewish problem. One of the biggest failings of the American Jewish community is the refusal to incorporate effective Hebrew language instruction into the Jewish educational system. Even the average Orthodox Day School graduate can barely get by in Israel on Hebrew alone. Are they afraid that a stronger connection with Israel and Israelis will lead more to make aliyah, further weakening the American Jewish community?

Setting aside the questionable validity of Jewish life outside of Israel, Judaism without Hebrew is an incomplete entity. For thousands of years Jewish study was reliant on Hebrew. However, a break with that past occurred in the mid-19th century. The religious leadership of the diaspora no longer relies on Hebrew. What sort of Jewish identity does one have without a basis in Hebrew? How can a community rely on Rabbis who are not truly versed in the language of the sources?

If Jewish continuity is a real goal then effective Hebrew education is necessary. Halting the detorioration of the language is imperative for the continued existence, and thriving, of the Jewish people. Proper Hebrew must not be preserved in an encyclopedia, but be the common language of Jews everywhere. The loss of Hebrew and the inability to read primary Jewish sources will leave us with only a watered down cultural heritage, not a national identity.

Middle Eastern Food on the Food Network Redux

I recently saw Bobby Flay do a falafel “Throwdown” on the food network. This time, however, they actually featured authentic dishes, and did not give a bad name to one of the world’s greatest cuisines.

For those of you unfamiliar with “Throwdown“, the concept is pretty simple. Bobby Flay (a pretty well-known chef) goes around the country challenging restaurant owners to see who makes the best of whatever that particular restaurant’s specialty happens to be. It’s a pretty good combination of travel and food preparation, with some competition throw in.

From what I hear, Falafel is rather difficult to make. For the poor uninitiated, falafel is a deep-fried hummus, of sorts, served of course with tahini, various salatim, and well, hummus – often served in a pita. I have been making my own hummus for some time, but one of these days I’m going to have to take the next step.

Next step... falafel

Next step... falafel

This time Flay challenged a former employee of his, Einat Admoni, at Taim Falafel in New York City to a falafel throwdown. Each of them made a falafel, hummus, and salad platter. During the competition Einat playfully criticized Flay’s method of blanching the falafel before frying them all the way through, and for making the falafel balls by hand (which apparently result in a very dense consistency).

All in all, though, he did a far better job than the last time I saw a Food Network host try his hand at Middle Eastern food. What did bother me was his “white bean hummus.” I’m pretty picky about my hummus, and I’m not a fan of foreign variations. In fact, even calling his product hummus is a stretch, considering his dip substitutes white beans for chickpeas. The Semitic root of “chickpea” is the origin of the very name of the dish. (Arabic: حمص, Hebrew: חמ”צ), and no chickpeas – no hummus.

In the end, the judges ruled for Bobby Flay. Einat was clearly trying to hide the fact that she was upset, saying she appreciates Flay’s work, but that her falafel is much better. Nevertheless, Flay’s own assistants were disappointed with the decision, one of them saying, “I think, objectively, she had a [sic] much, much better falafel… this time the judges just got it wrong.”

Here’s a link for the entire episode.

Coming very soon: hummus and falafel reviews of New York restaurants.

The Urge to Terrorize

In order to lose weight, one must resist the urge to overeat. In order to overcome alcoholism, one must resist the urge to drink. There are many urges humans have, many of them potentially harmful. Considering the benefits, if fleeting, of giving in to these urges, the need to resist them is only natural.

Speaking in Bethlehem yesterday, the Pope called on the Palestinians to “have the courage to resist any temptation… to resort to acts of violence or terrorism.”

What sort of sick individual is tempted to commit mass murder? Do people really need to be courageous in order to resist the urge to “resort” to terrorism?

On the Road, Home and Away

Long journeys across the U.S. are a somewhat strange experience. Hours upon hours, stationed within a fast-moving car, train, or even a bus, and the landscape changes ever so gradually. Fields, fields, and more fields. Agriculture’s presence in America is still very much evident, even after graduating from school.

Oddly enough, the agricultural vocabulary of the de facto national language (for now) seems to be rather meager, compared to Hebrew. Israel, whose society is still very much agrarian, especially for a first world country, lacks these expanses. Nevertheless, English is the language of the never ending farmland.

There is something rather monotonous about watching these fields. It all feels like one big tract of farmland, separated only by the small, picturesque towns and rest stops that dot the countryside. Yet driving in the US is generally goal-driven, there is a destination to be reached. And so, stopping in unknown towns along the way is counterproductive. The destination must be reached. Stopping? That’s what rest stops are for.

Ohio Rest Stop

Rest Stop in Ohio, by r.j.wagner

Rest stops are a curious concept. Each state, or interstate highway, seems to have an individualized style when it comes to their rest stops. Yet they are anything but different from one another. One can stop at every single rest stop in Ohio along I-80, for example, and not be able to tell them apart. Perhaps a few are mirror images of the others, but that is truly a distinction without a difference.

One’s concept of time seems to change, as well. A 10-hour Indian train ride from Haridwar to Amristar may be wholly enjoyable and even refreshing. Yet, there are no rules – people stare, inquire, touch, and yell, but it is the experience that draw one to travel in the first place. The three and a half hours from New York to Washington, D.C., on the other hand, are at times, unbearably long when people refuse to follow the rules.

You Can't Look Out the Door on Amtrak

Naturally, there are rest stops on the other side of the world, but these are not the cookie cutter creations of the American interstate highway system. From my experience thus far in Asia, the bus driver will stop at a family-run roadside food stand in the middle of nowhere. His choice is bottom-line driven – he generally gets a certain percentage of the money spent, during the 20 minutes allocated for the meal. But these places have real character – people yell at you incomprehensibly for “ordering wrong,” and no one asks you if you would like supersize anything. Run very efficiently, but with only one or two items on the menu, the westerner’s desire for choice will likely not be fulfilled. A lot of patience is necessary, though. Patience one does not have when trying to “make good time” driving from New York City to Chicago.

Overall, domestic travel has a very different feel from travel abroad. Like I said, domestically, a destination is to be reached. Traveling the world, the endless hours between places with names like Kathmandu and Kasar Devi can be taken in stride, and enjoyed. And on these roads, there is talk of the short trips back home, that will no longer just be tolerated – the hour between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv will fly by in an instant.

The Flat Tire

The Flat Tire

I have had those same thoughts many times. How bad can a couple hours of loud, poor quality, mizrahi music possibly be, compared to a entire day of horrendous karaoke videos on a bus trudging through the mud? Nevertheless, standing somewhere outside of Varanasi, while three of us were waiting for our driver to fix the flat on his autorickshaw, hoping we won’t miss our train, I knew that back home something like this would happen, and an hour of domestic travel would once again feel exponentially longer.

A.B. Yehoshua – Thoughts

A conversation of sorts, took place tonight between A.B. Yehoshua and Leon Wieseltier, at the Sixth & I Historic Synagogue in Washington, D.C. Hearing him introduced as “A.B. Yehoshua” grated on my ears a bit. Even when reading his name in English, I always heard it in my head as “Aleph Bet Yehoshua.” I don’t think a Hebrew writer’s name should be anglicized, but that’s neither here nor there.

One of Israel’s most celebrated writers, Yehoshua has authored a good number of novels, including The Lover, a masterpiece I have recently had the pleasure of reading. Yehoshua, however, is perhaps just as famous in Israel as a political figure. He is not a player in the traditional sense, but a pundit of sorts, a champion of the Israeli left.

Wieseltier and Yehoshua

Wieseltier and Yehoshua

Speaking here a few years ago, Yehoshua caused an uproar in the Jewish world by (rightly) accusing diaspora Jews of “changing countries like changing jackets,” and saying it is common sense that “Jewish life in Israel is more total than anywhere outside Israel.” This time, trying to avoid a second controversy, much of the talk focused on literature. Nevertheless, Israeli literature is more than just ink on paper, and a variety of issues pertaining to Israel were addressed.

His father was a Near East scholar, and so Yehoshua said he grew up with Arabs and Arabic, and so the stranger was not all that strange to him. He says, therefore that guilt, over Jewish actions committed to Arabs, does not figure into his politics, and that he holds them responsible as he does his own people. Presuming that Israel’s interest is near and dear to him, I cannot but help ascribe his political views to extreme naivete. His support for the Geneva Initiative, whether or not it is a just solution, assumes the conflict is simply over land. And that instating Arab sovereignty over parts of the land will bring about a peaceful end to the conflict.

The author also put down the Arab reverence of land. He may be right that the Arab citizens of Israel would be better off in seeking industrial, and other, development (uttering what has practically become a magic word – “Hi-Tech”). Nevertheless, by ignoring the importance of land to many, in and of itself, he is just sticking his head in the sand. The Hebrew language, with an abundance of agricultural words, serves a testament to the importance of land in Jewish history. Perhaps if more Jews understood the importance of that small piece of earth, Israel would cease trying to be the political version of a luftmensch.

Still on the topic of Israeli-Arabs, he was right that while they may accept Israel’s existence as fact, they do not recognize the legitimacy of the Jewish state. There is no easy solution, but that is precisely the problem. A very serious problem, that we will need to face sooner, rather than later.

Another interesting revelation was that Open Heart (The Return From India in Hebrew), written shortly after Oslo, was a break from politics. Politics were deliberately avoided, the misleading quiet of those years granted Yehoshua the liberty to leave that topic out of the story.

Yehoshua expressed some unease when discussing the next generation of Israeli writers, calling them the generation of the Six Day War, who are critical, perhaps overly so, of the state. While criticism and self-examination can be healthy, many of the writers of this generation lack a basic love for the homeland. There is no true struggle with the basics, he said, and their critique is beyond the general criticism. A certain level of patriotism and concern for the safety of the state is missing, alienation taking its place, along with questioning the necessity of Israel.

Michael Oren was in attendance in the audience, and asked about the prominent place of writers in the public discourse in Israel, often sought after by the press to comment on national affairs. Yehoshua was pessimistic regarding the future of the Israel public’s reliance of literary figures, but was also rather arrogant, saying that “they (the public) need our moral judgment.” I am not sure if this is more of a statement about the public or about Israel’s writers, but as mentioned in the talk, the Jewish nation has long turned to writers for leadership. Herzl was a playwright, and Yehoshua quipped that “perhaps, if he would [have been] more successful with his plays maybe we would have no Zionism [today].”

Of course, in light of the outrage directed at him last time he spoke in Washington, Yehoshua is most intriguing when sharing his thoughts on Israel-Diaspora relations. On the one hand, he said that Zionism succeeded “because the Zionists did not ask permission of the Jewish people.” On the other hand, his political bias showed when he reached out to American Jewish criticism of Israel, calling on American Jews to “be a partner in our discussion… [if you do not make aliyah] at least be a partner from the outside.”

On this last point he is wrong. He was wrong when he expressly said to the American Jewish community “you have legitimacy” to speak out. They do not. Every Jew can have this right, but this is not an absolute right – it must be realized. Until such time as diaspora Jews will decide their fortunes are truly with the Jewish people, at home, in Israel – criticism is a privilege they has not yet earned. Fighting for that right is not euphemism, and the experience of wearing an IDF uniform is what grants one the right to be heard.

Unfortunately, he went further, and when responding to a question about what he would ask Obama were they to meet,  Yehoshua said he would ask for American assistance to solve Israel’s conflict with her neighbors. “We cannot do it ourselves today… you (Obama)must help us.”

When it did come to the topic of aliyah, his true political colors showed. He rightly complained that only a few thousand Jews move to Israel from American each year, but he continued, saying that they are only Haredim who move to settlements, in order to exploit Israel’s social security system. He is simply wrong. Haredim do not make up anywhere near the majority of American olim, nor do Haredim generally associate with Yehoshua’s loathed ‘settler movement.’ Yet it was Wieseltier, the product of an Orthodox education himself, who glibly added that only a few thousand Jews make aliyah - “the wrong Jews.”

Still, unlike Wieseltier, Yehoshua is an actual Zionist, and unfortunately that fact alone places him head and shoulders above most Jews. Yet Jewish sovereignty and independence should rely on no outside sources. Furthermore, if American Jews want to have a place at the table, that place is theirs and waiting for them – in Israel.

Operation Cast Lead – Etymology

I’ve dealt with the military and political aspects here and international opinion here.

The name chosen for the operation is a pretty clever one, and while it just sounds like another rather meaningless name, it is somewhat of inside joke to Israelis. As the operation began on Hannukah, Cast Lead is a reference to a Hannukah song, Lichvod HaHannukah לכבוד החנוכה – in honor of Hannukah.

This is the relevant verse:

מורי נתן סביבון לי
סביבון מעופרת יצוקה.
יודעים אתם לכבוד מה?
לכבוד החנוכה!


My teacher gave a dreidel to me
A dreidel [made] of cast lead.
Do you know in honor of what?
In honor of Hannukah!

NEXT: Arab and Jewish Worlds’ opinions, and Israeli public opinion.

Yiddish AND Hebrew

Ynet has an interesting article on the revival of the Yiddish language. Ynet focuses on the alleged dichotomy between Hebrew and Yiddish. Yet, one should not need to choose between the two, as a professor quoted in the article says, “Jewish literacy requires both Yiddish and Hebrew.”

However, saying that “Yiddish is the ancestral tongue of most American Jews” is misleading, and it implies that is the only linguistic heritage of most American Jews. Yes, Yiddish was the lingua franca of most Asheknazi Jews for a long time, but Hebrew is the language of the Jewish people, and it always has been. Unfortunately, for much of our history, Hebrew was relegated to minimal use, primarily in prayer and study. However, Judaism is not a European invention, and long before Yiddish Jews ever set foot in Europe, our forefathers were speaking Hebrew.

Even so, Jews spent centuries in Europe, and developed a culture of their own. Yiddish was a big part of that, in literature, theater, and in daily life. Rememberance of the past has always been a significant theme in Judaism, from the commandment to remember Amalek, to the modern-day obligation never to forget the Holocaust.

Even in Israel, there is a Yiddish revivalism movement, which would seem contradictory to early modern Zionism’s rejection of this “diaspora language.” Hebrew is well established enough today in Israel, and Yiddish does not present a danger to the real Jewish language, nor does it represent a movement promoting a return to the diaspora. Remembering our entire heritage is important, and it does not, in any way, reject the return to the Jewish sovereignty in Israel after thousands of years. נישט אזוי?

Overheard in Hebrew

For those of you who speak Hebrew and are familiar with the type of blog popularized by Overheard in New York, another time wasting tool is now available.

גונב לאזניי, with the clever subtitle of “ציטוטים של ציתותים” is basically Overheard in Israel, and will provide you with endless hours of entertainment, ensuring you get absolutely nothing done.