Hebrew Hear-Say: It's party time

Even the most sophisticated and secular are unwilling to tempt the evil eye by welcoming a child who has yet to be born.

You live and learn, they say. "They" are right. Having arrived here at 18, I missed the whole Israeli school experience and jumped in at the deep end with military service, a learning experience in its own right. Fortunately, I now have a kid in 'kita alef' (first grade) and it's very educational. He's having a ball - or at least several parties of the type I never knew existed. (Although I have learned to always have a clean white shirt and blue pants on hand and to no longer be fazed by discovering a 'petek' [note] at midnight informing me that I have just a few hours to provide the class with something like a dozen hard-boiled eggs as if I were a mother hen rather than a working mom.) It seems there is always a 'siba lemesiba', a reason to party, a phrase which according to wordsmith Ruvik Rosenthal was born with the eponymous and hugely successful Friday night talk show of the 1980s. An early first-grade milestone was 'mesibat ha'otiot', the letters party, in which the children celebrated having mastered writing the entire alphabet. Milestone No. 2 has just taken place in all the state religious elementary schools in Jerusalem, as far as I can tell from the general excitement of six-year-olds in our neighborhood. 'Mesibat hasiddur', the prayer-book party, celebrates being able to really read and was marked in my son's school with a touching ceremony followed by a trip to the Western Wall where the pupils used for the first time the prayer books they had so ceremoniously been given. The event was treated with the importance of something between a 'brit mila' (circumcision) and a 'bar mitzva', which I suppose, chronologically, it was. I am now looking forward to the 'mesibat Humash', at the end of the year, when they are given the first of the five books of the Torah, 'Bereishit', marking a whole new beginning. Most parties, of course, focus on fun, with the exception, perhaps of what is known as a 'mesibat itona'im', literally a journalists' party, the Hebrew for a press conference. Or a cocktail party, 'mesibat koktail'. In fact, any party where you have to work can't be entirely pleasurable, even if you don't have to personally clean up the mess and wash the dishes. As New York memoirist Carol Matthau once put it: "The dying process begins the minute we are born, but it accelerates during dinner parties." The most Israeli party I ever went to was meant to be my last: On the eve of the first Gulf War in January 1991, as the country prepared sealed rooms and readied for Saddam's Scuds possibly loaded with chemical or biological weapons, I attended along with a lot of 'Jerusalem Post' staff an "end of the world" party ('mesibat sof ha'olam'). It gave a whole new connotation to deadline pressure but we were determined that if we were going to die, we would go having a good time. And that is what parties are meant to be about - a good time, not dying. No drugs, no drunk driving and definitely no violence. From pajama parties ('mesibot pijama') as a kid to stag and hen nights ('mesibot ravakim/ravakot') as adults, such gatherings are about staying up late and having fun. The word "'fun'", by the way has almost overtaken "'kef'" in certain supposedly Hebrew-speaking circles. High-school graduation here is marked by increasingly grandiose "'mesibot siyum'" (literally: conclusion parties), apparently influenced by American television series. For obvious reasons, the start of military service ('giyus') is not often celebrated. But a demobbing party ('mesibat shihrur') is as much a part of Israeli life as talking about "'Hamatzav'," "The Situation." The life and soul of the party is, in Hebrew, 'masmer ha'erev': the evening's nail, i.e. the person with everyone hanging around them. At any party, anywhere in the world, they stick out, and usually someone gets hurt by them. Their opposite, who also exists the world over but nobody ever notices them, is the lonely wallflower, or as they're called in Hebrew, the 'perah kir'. Most parties are planned by the host. Some are planned by the guests. The blue-and-white surprise party is called 'mesibat hafta'a'. No surprise there. It's a literal translation. Among the most difficult events are farewell parties ('mesibot preida', or parting parties). Baby showers, marking new arrivals, are not common here. Even the most sophisticated and secular who might doubt the Divine hand are unwilling to tempt the evil eye by welcoming a child who has not yet been born. Birthday parties, 'mesibot yom huledet', on the other hand, are a matter of individual taste. If the party hat fits, you wear it. The main thing, as those clever "they" say, is never to arrive first or leave last unless it's a party in your own honor. Especially as Hebrew has yet to come up with a widely accepted equivalent term for party pooper. [email protected]