Hebrew Hear-Say: Phases and phrases

0102-hebrew (photo credit: )
(photo credit: )
The strangest things can send you off down memory lane: a smell, a song and, I've discovered, slang. Searching a book store for a present recently, I came across David Sela's Abba shelcha lo zagag ("Your father's not a glazier") subtitled "Nostalgic idioms" (Modan Publishing House Ltd.). Since the shop was having one of those sales in which many second purchases were available for NIS 20, I couldn't resist. (Although I wish the major chain stores would simply reduce the prices on all their books year-round, instead of trying to make you feel good with selected special offers.) Sela's anthology, indeed, took me back to a time when there was neither such crass commercialism nor so many different products available in the country's stores. In his preface, Sela writes: "In these times, when our world is becoming, on the whole, virtual and digital, a time when we are slowly becoming part of the global village, it is only natural that we should seek anchors in our lives to strengthen our hold on the ground or serve as road marks (simanei derech) in the tracks of our long lives in this land." The book, set out alphabetically, starts out with the title phrase: Your father's not a glazier ("Abba shelcha lo zagag"), which used to be a common way of telling someone that he is blocking your view - especially in those days when there was only one television channel and that in black and white. In those days, incidentally "sheleg," "snow," was as likely to refer to the poor reception on the TV as to any meteorological phenomenon. Each entry includes the phrase, an explanation and an example of usage. No less important, it is enhanced by a line drawing (by Ami Rubinger) which also reflects the simple style of times gone by. Ahead of the country's 60th anniversary, the book serves, naturally, as a social history. Take for example the phrase "ochel bemitbah hapoalim," "eats in the workers' cafeteria," which referred to someone who's broke ("tafran") and harks back to the days, as Sela notes, when workers in the Jewish state were actually Jewish and not Romanian, and cheap kitchens were set up to provide basic food for those who couldn't otherwise afford to buy it. This was the same sort of person about whom it was said "ochel pita im perurim" ("he eats pita with crumbs") referring to the practice of selling the crumbs of felafel at a reduced price in an era when designer felafel was not even part of the Zionist dream and those chickpea balls really were the national dish. The opposite of those poor old guys, by the way, was the type of woman about whom you could say: "Yesh la maghetz mikafrisin," ("She has an iron from Cyprus," a reminder of a bygone era when a cruise to Cyprus might have been the highest holiday aspiration of the average housewife. The housewife, incidentally, as a bride would have been inundated with "Sypholuxim," also recalled in the book: Every young couple could be expected to receive a few of those primitive soda makers just as surely as bar mitzva boys in the pre-computer age would count the number of pens they received on the fingers of at least one ink-stained hand. Those were the days when friends (or those who professed friendship) would claim: "achalnu me'oto mesting," "We ate from the same mess tin bowl" - a phrase that has basically died out as basic-training camps moved over to outside caterers. A large number of entries in the book refer back to the period of economic hardship but social togetherness like "mevashlim baprozdor," "cooking in the corridor," said of those who could afford to rent a room but without access to a kitchen. Such a person would be warned "al tikpotz me'al hapupik" for example, ("don't jump above the belly button,") a warning about overreaching financially. Some of the phrases haven't so much died out as grown irrelevant with age: The call "noladta be'otobus?" "were you born on a bus?" - the Hebrew equivalent of "were you born in a barn?" - for example, can take you back to childhood days even if they weren't spent in Israel. The slang in Sela's book serves as graffiti on the walls of memory lane in the days when high streets, and not shopping malls, were the center of urban life and real estate could be bought at realistic prices. As Sela recalls, "k'she'bagrush haya hor," when the coins from the Mandate period had a hole in them, you could buy a whole building for a few lirot. Perusing the book with the help of multifocals, coming across the phrases like mishkafayim im adashot shel Tempo ("glasses with Tempo lenses"), a reference to those bottle-thick lenses we used to suffer, helped put how far we've all come in focus. [email protected]