Hebrew Hear-Say: Death sentences (and other taboos)

Israel has come a long way since the Yom Kippur War song popularly known as the "Underwear Song."

liat collins 88 (photo credit: )
liat collins 88
(photo credit: )
Some things just can't be said out loud. But here goes. Strangely, the more permissive society becomes, the more taboos it seems to develop. Israel has come a long way since the Yom Kippur War song popularly known as the "Underwear Song" ("Shir Hatahtonim") in which songwriter Thelma Elyagon described a soldier's plea for undershirts and underpants ("But, sweetheart, please don't send me a cake"). The ditty which raised morale during those difficult weeks in 1973 was actually based on a postcard sent from the front by Elyagon's brother in which he asked for toilet paper. The powers-that-be thought it would be inappropriate for the words "niyar tualet" to be sung on the nation's airwaves (the you-know-what might hit the fan) and ruled that it be changed before it could enter the charts. The song was a hit, more a morale victory than a moral one - because any soldier who has ever served in the IDF (even today when soldiers send SMSs instead of mail) can tell you that there is always a lack of toilet paper. That you can never find something to wipe your bum with when you most need it is a fact of life that even kindergarteners learn. Hani Nachmias sings about it on the potty-training video/DVD Bli hitulim ("Without diapers"). There are some things we all know but for reasons of propriety are not allowed to say - and this is true from womb to tomb. A friend of mine who works in the haredi media notes that the numerous taboos in that sector include mentioning pregnancy. Ironically, particularly in the ultra-Orthodox world, even the tiniest tots are aware that women have babies growing in their tummies without worrying about the details of how they got there, but mention herayon (pregnancy) and you can lose your job without so much as a pregnant pause. At the other end (ad me'a ve'esrim! - you should live until 120) we all have to die - except those who "pass away," a euphemism frowned on in the Jerusalem Post stylebook although it occasionally creeps in, usually due to deadline pressure (or should that be "passing-on" pressure?). The Israel Broadcasting Authority frequently uses "halach le'olamo" (went to the next world), particularly when referring to a famous personality who died after suffering from a "mahala kasha" - a serious illness, as if a non-serious illness would be fatal and as though coming out and saying "cancer" would kill the newsreader. Someone really famous doesn't get buried either, he is simply accompanied "bedarko ha'aharona" - on his final journey (although arguably it's the first to ha'olam shekulo tov, the world which is all good). Before you make that final one-way trip to the cemetery (beit kvarot [graveyard] or beit almin [the house of the next world] or even beit hayim [house of life]), you are expected to reach a ripe old age, now known as a golden age (gil hazahav). Israel, like much of the Western world, has plenty of octogenarians and nonagenarians but no old people (zkenim). It has senior citizens (ezrahim vatikim) who would never go to an old-age home - formerly locally called a parents' home (beit avot). Now they live with other golden agers in a retirement residence ("diyur mugan" [sheltered housing]). They probably spent most of their lives in jobs which at least now sound exciting or glamorous. In the era of euphemisms, professional jargon rules. Have you tried finding a hairdresser (sapar/saparit) lately? They have been cut out of the picture by young snippers who are all hair designers (me'atzev/et se'ar). We all know that the garbage men don't go on strike. But the sanitation workers (anshei tavrua) often hold sanctions to complain about some aspect or another of their job that stinks. The local grocer (ish makolet) now runs a "mini-market" in exactly the same tiny corner store. Anyone whose fingers tap a computer keyboard or talks through a switchboard is some kind of "executive" or "consultant" (yo'etz/et), and I believe it's only a matter of time before New York's Moishe's removal guys and their Israeli friends turn into "relocation engineers." We're all guilty of the sin of euphemism, however. How many times have you been seeking the toilet (beit shimush) and asked for the bathroom or restroom (sherutim, literally services/facilities)? As being politically correct becomes ever more challenging, the borders become increasingly blurred. Trying to avoid agist/sexist/discriminatory terms is ever more demanding. It is said in Victorian times a horse would sweat; a gentleman perspire; and a lady "be all of the heat." Nowadays we all use what the commercials boast are "new, improved, long-lasting anti-perspirants/deodorants," but I still get hot under the collar and break out in a cold sweat every time I fear I'm being gobbled up by gobbledygook. Israel prides itself on being dugri, straight to the point, but it also delights in having discovered America. The price we pay is being no longer able to call a spade a spade without wondering if that shouldn't be termed a broad-based horticultural implement instead. liat@jpost.com