Hebrew Hear-Say: Say what you mean

September 28, 2006 12:29
3 minute read.


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Talk of a state commission of inquiry into Lebanon II (and annual seasonal soul-searching related to the Yom Kippur War) automatically brings to mind those catchphrases that make Israeli life what it is. It all comes down to what has been called the Smoch alay principle, as in "Trust me" (uttered as if you had a choice.) Smoch alay and Yihye beseder (It'll be OK) are ugly sisters that tend to rule over Israeli society, to the great frustration of those immigrants brought up in a world in which you might trust a doctor but not the car salesman or mechanic. More of a philosophy than a catchphrase, Yihye beseder has been blasted by many including the quintessential sabra, Yitzhak Rabin. To their credit, the elements of faith and improvisation embedded deep in these phrases are the same elements that gave us everything from the Davidka - the cannon-like object that made a lot of noise and helped scare off Jerusalem's enemies in the War of Independence - to the Entebbe Operation. Unfortunately, they also provided the basis for the Maccabiah bridge disaster, and you can almost hear them echoing around empty storerooms that should have held supplies for reservists in Lebanon II. Smoch alay and Yihye beseder have a partner in crime: Li zeh lo yikreh (lit. It won't happen to me) - the fundamental belief that nothing bad is going to happen to a person who doesn't wear a flak jacket during sniping/a seatbelt when driving/go into a bomb shelter during shelling/wait for a green light when crossing the street. No wonder it was used as part of a road safety campaign several years ago. It fitted in alongside the ani metzaftzef aleicha approach to driving: Literally, I'm whistling at you, it is still used by lawscoffers who'd rather die than toe the line. My commanding officer in the army had his own favorite catchphrases: The intensely annoying Hahayim hem lo picnic (Life's no picnic) and the more motivating Yahas gorer yahas, the belief that how you treat someone will be reflected in how you are treated. I have to admit that we were not the type of unit where the officer needed to yell "Aharay" "Follow me," although we had our tense moments. Early on I learned the sad rule of a rookie's life: Lechol Shabbat yesh Motzash, an almost untranslatable phrase which basically means "you'll pay for it later," as in, you can rest on the Sabbath but wait till it goes out... Those were the occasions in which I learned to rely on Hebrew platitudes based on millennia of collective memory and suffering. No other people could find relief in "Avarnu et par'o, na'avor gam et zeh..." "We got through Pharoah, we'll get through this too," which has survived the generations to become a popular Israeli song still played on the airwaves. There is also the classic wisdom of King Solomon, who, the story goes, asked the royal goldsmith to fashion a ring with the phrase: "Gam zeh ya'avor" "This too shall pass." It acts as a reminder that not only all good things come to an end, the bad things, too, are temporary. (Millennia later, an Israeli pop group known as Hakol Over Habibi, "Everything passes, my friend," narrowly missed out on performing the song "Hallelujah" that won the 1979 Eurovision Song Contest. The mantra did not help them much at the time, apparently, and true to its name, the band split up shortly after coming seventh in the Eurovision of 1981.) More comfort has been offered through the ages by the belief shared by Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Nahum "Ish Gamzu," who said all adversity in life should be met with the response: "Gam zu letova" "Everything is for the best." Talk about thinking positive! Or as they say around here: Ha'ikar habri'ut, the main thing is to be healthy. Even the French "c'est la vie" exerted its Gallic charm and entered modern Hebrew as "Kacha hahayim" or "Kacha zeh behayim" (another cue for an Israeli song, by the way.) Then there are those multi-purpose phrases, such as "Zeh ma sheyesh" - often truncated to "Zeh ma yesh" - that's all there is, take it or leave it. When the going gets tough the phrase is often combined with "ve'im zeh nenatzeah." In English you'd probably say: "That's all there is, and it will have to do" but the ever-optimistic Israeli "Yihye beseder" outlook gave us the belief: "That's all there is and with it we shall win." Perhaps there's something to be said for our winning ways after all. liat@jpost.com

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