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  • Writer's pictureJewish Examiner

I Am Everything, I Am (not) Nothing

It’s Saturday evening and I can finally say with confidence that I survived the Shabbat. In fact over the last 30 hours I miraculously dodged almost all the horrors of this country I was warned about.

True, I have been here just long enough to cover the basics; I stuffed my belly with good food (unidentifiable, delicious 😌), I went to the beach (golden sand as fine as wheat flour, people gleefully enjoying the water behind the many multilingual DO NOW SWIM signs 🤷🏼‍), I encountered a few locals (flip-flop wearing, ridiculously gorgeous, so far not showing any signs of being the worst 🤔), and I wandered aimlessly around the messy, rundown streets of the White City (really pretty damn ugly 😣).

All this fun left me exhausted. Now I am just chilling on the couch, barely keeping awake as the evening breeze carries in summer night sounds through the open window. The rustling of palm leaves in the wind, the swoosh-swoosh of waves idly lapping on the now empty beach, human voices chattering and laughing some distance away, the chirping of crickets and other critters I can’t identify, the muffled action noises from a movie someone watches next door and the Israeli music softly playing from YouTube on my TV all mingle in a relaxing lullaby. I am already dozing off when a new song comes up.

Most songs only show a static image of the album cover over the audio track, but this one is a real music video. Thanks to the movement on my TV screen, I come awake now and start paying attention — which leads me to two exciting new discoveries over the next 3 minutes.

The singer looks like a regular liberal arts student, with a slightly bewildered, mid-exam period expression. But then I notice he is wearing one of those Jewish scull caps I now know are called kippah.

Those things have mystified me for years; they look so impractically designed, that I assume they must be held in place only by the Holy Spirit. Suddenly, the guy in the video turns and the age-old mystery is finally solved: he simply fastened his on with a snap clip. Ha! Impressed as I am with this discovery, it immediately raises further questions. What did they use before the snap clips were invented in the 20th century? And how do guys usually acquire them? Does the kippah already come with a set of clips? What happens when they get lost? Do men go hair clip shopping themselves, or do they just “borrow” them from their wives / mothers / other female family members…?

I am not in a rush to immediately go searching for the answers, but I am properly awake now. So I keep watching the video. I have no idea what the guy is on about. He sings in an empty space, with words forming and swirling all around him. As he interacts with the Hebrew typography, I am trying to match the writing to the lyrics. It’s a hopeless effort.

I am sure that Hebrew is phonetic, so letters should correspond to sounds (as opposed to syllables or words). According to all my observation since yesterday, clearly there are too few letters for any other purpose. But there seems to be a mismatch. I have the suspicion that written words are somehow shorter than spoken ones. Now, THIS grants an immediate investigation.

I am astonished to find out that indeed words in writing tend to be shorter, because they are spelled using only consonants. I also learn that a system of indicating vowels (niqqud) does exist, with its use limited to holy scripts and children’s books. My mind is blown.

I recall learning rovásírás in school (it’s the runic Old Hungarian script of obscure historical origin, recently enjoying a renaissance thanks to some far-right enthusiasts). This system also writes right to left and omits vowels. I remember I found reading anything in it very challenging, even though everything was in my mother tongue. So how on Earth can Hebrew speakers use such a difficult solution for their everyday communication…?

It feels like a big question to answer. So I opt for letting it go for today. The video ends and soon I am lulled back into my languid summer night mood. It’s not long before I am fast asleep, contented in the knowledge that I still have another 2.5 days of full exposure to this fascinating language ahead of me.

— — — — —

A few months later I come across the video again. This time it has English subtitles and I am delighted to discover that it is essentially a handy quick reference to Israeli stereotypes I have been completely oblivious about.

At least some are generic enough for me to instantly recognise:

All of Tel Aviv is vegan [seems reasonable to me, with such excellent plant based cuisine lending itself to be an easy shortcut to eating well despite the numerous rules and restrictions around food] 🌱

All the Arabs are terrorists [all 300 Million of them, everybody knows that] 🙄

Russians are fans of Stalin [Aaaw, they have it so easy in Israel! Where I come from, they were stereotyped to rob everyone’s watches and the occasional tank] ⌚️

Women should be in the kitchen [I agree! An office with a small desk simply doesn’t do. Only the kitchen table is large enough for us to plan world domination on. Plus, easy access to food at all times!] 🤓

Parlament members are the worst [which is a prerequisite for being in politics anywhere in the world, isn’t it?] 🤔

The religious have never heard of Darwin [I am sure they did. But the Bible’s explanation of our origin is so much nicer! It’s more compact and neat. Makes for a better bedtime story. ] 🌙

All the seculars are heretics [those damn seculars, ruining great old stories with their scientific ideas! Evolution, schmevolution…] 🦖

And then there are other stereotypes, ones I have never heard of. They sound rather politically charged and I suspect that asking any Israeli about them would possibly prompt some heated discussions. I am a chicken, so I make a mental note to quietly google them at a later point instead.

All the leftist are traitors. [Why? Who are they? What are they betraying?]

All the settlers killed Rabin [Oh my. This is getting serious.]

All the Ultra Orthodox are robbers [Hah! The snappy hair pins! I knew it!]

All the Sephardim are deprived [If this is about food, maybe they should befriend the vegans and the women in the kitchen…?]

All the Ethiopians are running or singing with Raichel [OK… my level of confusion has officially reached an all-time high.]

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