Friday, January 5, 2007

Express your face to the ascender

The title, "Express your face to the ascender" is the literal translation of a Hebrew propaganda slogan of bygone days - "Hasver Paneycha La'oleh" meaning "welcome the new immigrant." There is also "Hasver Paneycha latayar" - Welcome the tourist.

So welcome to the prospective new immigrant, tourist, and any other foreigners who might want to know about Israel, wherever you are and whatever your religious beliefs or nonbeliefs, and political beliefs or non-beliefs may be. More...

Just as it is hard to translate Hebrew to English literally, it is very hard to translate Israel into English for foreigners, but not because of language difficulties. Anyone viewing Israel from abroad may see it through several layers of distorting spectacles. It is the "Jewish State," (with a large Arab minority) and Jews after all, have a special and not always very honored place in the cultures of the world. It is also "the holy land" of Biblical times and the site of pilgrimages. It is the land where Jesus lived and preached. It is in the news because of wars. It is idealized by Christian Zionists and villified by anti-Zionists.

For many years, people came here expecting to find sand dunes, camels, penniless new immigrants, Holocaust survivors, picturesque ruins and continuous warfare. The newsreels and propaganda films of my early U.S. childhood that showed Israel, usually showed boatloads of immigrants in shoddy clothing carrying bundles of belongings; TV news reports showed Israel whenever there was a war or a terror attack -- or the Eichmann trial.

People living abroad acquired very strange ideas about our country.

In later years, all the news reports seem to show that Israel is populated by dangerous fanatics from Brooklyn. They give the impression that most of the vehicular traffic here consists of APCs, tanks and ambulances carting off victims from terror attacks. That footage is real enough usually, but it represents only a small portion of Israeli reality. Not so real are the cartoons in European journals that may show our leaders eating babies, and the imaginative descriptions of Jewish "settlers" putting on their Kippot (skullcaps) and perhaps saying a blessing before shooting Arabs. Our leaders eat regular food and not babies, and our soldiers wear regular military uniforms. Religious men must wear head covering at all times.

Begin by understanding that Israel is a country quite a bit like yours, assuming you live somewhere in the industrialized western world. That will give you a much better picture of Israeli reality than you can get from news footage of terror attacks and settlements and wars. We have the same shopping malls, the same glass and steel hi-tech skyscrapers, the same traffic jams, the same pollution problems etc. Israel is probably quite a bit like where you live, only smaller, very much smaller.

There are some important differences from most countries. In San Francisco, I went to a museum. They had some "very old" things there from 100 or 150 years ago. In Israeli museums, the exhibits are liable to be 3,000 years old and more. In Pennsylvania, you can visit the site of the battle of Gettysburg, which took place in 1863. In Israel, you can visit the sites of battles that took place in 863 BC. History is all around you here. It is even older than European history.

Every time I have visited cities like New York or London or Florence, I have found them very much the same, even after an absence of several years. Once you know the way, not much changes. Every time I have been away from Israel for any length of time and returned, there were new roads, new communities, new buildings, and important changes in municipal thoroughfares. Detours and route changes are often not very well marked, so getting in and out of cities like Tel Aviv can be an uncertain adventure for the unwary!

Not all the changes turn out to be good ideas. Israel drained the Huleh swamp in the 1950s, but subsequently it has been decided that this was not so good for the ecology and should be reversed. A great elevated mall was built in Tel Aviv to replace the quaint Dizengoff circle, with its coffee houses and air of pre-World War II European civilization. Probably it was a mistake that will eventually be reversed.

So Israel is an old country, that is also always new, a characteristic envisioned in the novel written by Theodor Herzl 100 years ago - Altneuland (Old New Land). This name did not translate well into Hebrew I suppose, so it was translated to a totally unrelated name - Tel Aviv, meaning Spring Hill. Tel Aviv became the name of the first new Hebrew city, founded a few years later, in 1909.

There is another big difference that Israelis take for granted. When I lived in the US, people were shocked by the rape and murder of Kitty Genovese, which took place in a Queens courtyard in 1964 while 38 people looked on and did nothing. I like to think that it can't happen here. For better or worse, Israelis and Palestinians get involved whether they are Arabs or Jews. Many years ago, I helped a friend do a short film in Jerusalem. A girl went out to the middle of the street and fainted. This little charade was repeated several times, each time with the same result, a crowd gathered in seconds to protect her, attempt aid and get her off the street. The "charade" is repeated over and over in real life. Every emergency brings people running to help.

Ami Isseroff
(AKA News Service - 'cause that's how the blog works)


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'Like this, as if' is a literal translation of Hebrew slang, 'kahzeh ke'ilu.' This Hebrew expression is a literal translation of 'so, like,' as in 'It was so, like, cool.' A weblog translating Israeli life into English.

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