Hebrew Hear-Say: Blue-and-white catchphrases II

Ma pit'om you might ask if you know this useful but untranslatable term. It means something like "what on earth?"

Hebrew Hear-Say logo (photo credit: )
Hebrew Hear-Say logo
(photo credit: )
Among its features celebrating the country's 60th anniversary, Yediot Aharonot ran a column in which its writers depicted their "most Israeli moment." One described suffering a mini-crisis in England when she tried to translate the song "Yesh arema shel hevre al hadeshe…" - roughly: "There is a pile of friends on the grass." Hevre is translatable but the concept is very Israeli. It is, as they say, ehad mishelanu: one of ours. Hevre is more than a bunch of mates who meet at a pub or bar. Hevre is a group which only death can part (and not even that, always). If you were once part of a hevre - in a youth movement, army, university - you will always be part of that hevre - even if you are no longer in touch. In an emergency, you can still call on them. It's mashehu mashehu (literally: "something something," used as really something.) Twenty years might have passed since you sat stalbet (totally relaxed) on the grass singing Arik Einstein songs and asking each other: "Ma koreh?" - what's going on? - but you can pick up the phone and use that Israeli series of greetings: "Ma nishma? Ma hadash? Ma ha'inyanim?" and have a conversation that only friends can have before that hybrid Hebrew ending "Yalla bye!" Ma pit'om you might ask if you know this useful but untranslatable term. It means something like "what on earth?" You don't have to be in the country long before you hear it but it takes a while to understand how to use it. Kacha zeh - that's how it is; ta'aminu li - believe me. Some Israeli concepts are a matter of geography - yeled tov yerushalayim (lit: a good Jerusalem boy) is used in the Holy Land similar to the way "a nice Jewish boy" is used in the Diaspora. The opposite, now outdated, is Tiveriani - a boy from Tiberias, or as they used to call themselves when I served on an army base there: Tiveriani Indiani. There are certain Israeli staple phrases that are a combination of a way of life and a fact of life. A false alarm - az'akat shav - can exist in any language but here most adults will identify with the actual situation rather than just as a figure of speech. Among my most Israeli moments is listening to the news during the 1991 Gulf War and hearing the announcer's detached tones pronouncing a "shigrat herum" "a routine emergency" - no wonder the hevre are so bonded. Like most Western cultures, many passing phrases come from TV shows and advertisements (perhaps better described as a subculture, given the substandard nature of many in the age of cable and commercial television). One slogan that has stuck is "lehiyot im velehargish bli" - to be with and feel without. This, if memory serves me right - "tetaknu oti im ani to'a" ("correct me if I'm wrong," as the talk show standard puts it) - dates back to an advertisement for a bra. In any event, it has been used in so many situations since - to describe everything from political coalitions to sheltered housing - that its origins are almost irrelevant. It is, however, a reminder of the marketing principle that if the commercial doesn't include the product's name, you might as well be promoting somebody else's goods. If an ad for a drink makes you thirsty without making you thirst for a specific brand, you could actually be losing business by running it. The "shtu mayim" (drink water) catchphrase, davka, wasn't used to advertise a beverage at all but was part of the jingle of the Voice of Peace, the most non-violent pirate (radio) ship to broadcast "from somewhere in the Mediterranean." The "gal hasheket" - silent wave - the radio station that operates during a routine emergency and broadcasts nothing at all is also wonderfully Israeli. It is used over "shabbatot vehagim" - sabbaths and festivals - to enable the religious to leave a radio on knowing that it will only be heard if the emergency becomes non-routine. The ultimate Israeli fear has nothing to do with the security situation or not being able to make ends meet - or as we put it: ligmor et hahodesh, to finish the month. The worst nightmare is to be a freier - a sucker. This might not sound so bad but ultimately it is responsible for everything from unpunctuality - no one wants to be the sucker who arrives first - to price haggling. And it is lethal on the roads when someone would rather die than be the sucker who gives way. There are, of course, many other classic Israeli catchphrases (with the emphasis on the catch) but we'll leave them for future columns. When? I wouldn't like to say exactly so let's just say sometime in the future or in Hebrew's equivalent of the concept of mañana: "aharei hahagim" - "after the holidays" - and leave it at that. liat@jpost.com