Everyday life in an extraordinary place.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Israeli-isms


This Postcard from Israel was originally written on 23 October 1999

Every culture has its own shorthand. In America, there are both national expressions ("Have a nice day!") and regional ones ("y'all") in common usage. Many of these expressions have their origins in the media, whether through advertising or popular television shows and movies.

As far as I can determine, few Israeli expressions come from television or movies (yes, we do have a motion picture industry here). But there are certain things that many Israelis do or say in a variety of situations. Keep in mind, of course, that these are generalizations based only on my own experience!

One of the most common things Israelis do is make a tsk-ing sound. They use this as a negative answer to a question. ("Have you seen the new Disney movie?" "Tsk.") Often this is accompanied by a single shake of the head. Now, I grew up believing that making such a sound was rude, but here it is perfectly acceptable.

Many catch-phrases here reveal a fatalistic streak. One common term is: "ain mah la'asot," which can be translated as "there's nothing I (or we) can do about it." The attitude of the speaker is: there are forces larger than we are at work in this situation (not necessarily referring to a divine being). It is frustrating to hear this expression when you've gone to complain to someone who is supposedly in a position of authority. I often wonder if people say this in order to avoid having to deal with a problem. Closely related to this saying is "mah ani aseh?" (literally "what will I do?" but conveying more a sense of "my hands are tied" or "what do you want from me?"). This is usually said in a defiant or defensive tone, guaranteed to raise your hackles.

Another expression I can't stand is "ee-efshar" ("impossible"). I have been told this on more occasions that I can (or want to!) count. Many new ideas, innovations or suggestions are met with this response. Most people want to continue doing things the same way they always have. Making changes or trying something new involves work and taking a risk. I once told a sales person in a kitchen store that I wanted a certain kind of cabinet built into my new kitchen. She told me it was impossible, so I walked out. The Israeli carpenter I ended up hiring later told me, "There is no such thing as 'ee-efshar,' just 'lo rotzeh' ("I don't want to")." I feel lucky to have found a talented carpenter who believes that anything is possible if you try hard enough to make it work.

Yet another non-answer is "yeheeyeh beseder" ("it will be okay"), which seems to be meant as a soothing response that is often offered when the speaker has no intention of actually doing anything to help things turn out right. In some magical way the situation will be resolved.

The other type of sayings you will often hear reflect a rather superstitious nature. When people (all kinds, not just religious ones) talk about the possibility of something bad happening, they always say "eem, has v'haleelah..." (which loosely translates to: "If, God forbid...") before mentioning illness, accident, disaster, or any other unpleasant occurrence. I once even saw this term used in a newspaper headline talking about a hypothetical situation. On the other hand, when people (again, not only religious ones) tell you that they or their families are well, they will often say "barooch ha shem" which literally means "blessed is the name (of God)" but can also be translated as "thank God."

The funny thing about these types of expressions is that many people are not even aware they are using them most of the time. These terms have become verbal reflexes, instinctive and unconsidered. In this way, these various expressions reflect part of the national personality.

Israelis have a reputation for being aggressive and rude. While this can be true, they are much more complex than that. Israelis are, after all, a mix of people from many different countries, cultures, and traditions. Two weeks ago, a conference on what constitutes Israeli identity took place. Philosophers, artists and historians spent several hours discussing this topic, and came away without a definition. Although I doubt there is an easy answer, perhaps it would have helped if they had left the college campus on which they held their debates, and spent some time in cafes, on buses, or in line at the supermarket. Or even, "has v'haleelah," stuck in traffic.

(c) Amy Samin

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