Ph.D. Octopus

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Archive for the ‘language’ Category

Israel Through Its Cab Drivers

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David recently went on a trip to Israel with his father. Here is a brief reflection of his time there. More will follow.

My father and I had arranged for a cab to take us from Rehovot to Tel Aviv. The morning he was scheduled to pick us up, the cab driver called and asked: “Is it ok if I bring my cousin?” Only in Israel.

The cab driver, it turned out, was a Jew of Yemenite origin. His “cousin” was in fact a cousin through marriage, an Ashkenazi Jewish woman and Holocaust survivor from Romania. Yet another example of the blended families that make up the Jewish melting pot that represents the majority of Israeli society.

I’m nor sure what, if anything, cab drivers as a category can tell you about Israeli society. They used to have quite a bit of political clout, and in the 1990s they even had a political party. The drivers themselves, almost universally male, have a weird, somewhat sleazy reputation: years ago I recall a cab driver trying charge me extra for turning on the air conditioning. Whereas in New York it seems the vast majority of cab drivers are foreign born, that doesn’t seem to be the case in Israel, though of course drivers are both Jewish and Arab.

Our first important cab driver, a man we’ll call Shmuel, took us around East Jerusalem and the old city. Though he asked if we wanted to go to the Kotel (Wailing Wall), my father and I had already been on the first eve of our trip, and on every trip before that. Why was this visit to Israel different than every other visit to Israel? This one, we’d be seeing some non-Jewish sites. Still, Shmuel insisted that we at least see something sheh-lanu (of ours). You see, Shmuel was an observant Jew, modern, with a knitted yarmulke on his head. In fact, he pointed out that he was the only Jewish cab driver for his company. The rest were all Arabs. Except the owner of the company. He was Jewish too.

In addition to being a good cab driver, Shmuel was a knowledgeable tour guide, of both Jewish and Arab sites. He spoke Hebrew, English, and some Arabic. He was of Iraqi origin, though his family had come to what was then Palestine over 115 years ago. In another post, I’ll discuss all the places he took us.

A few days later, in Tel Aviv, we took a ride with the most colourful cab driver yet. Let’s call him Yossi. He too was of Iraqi origin, but he was more secular. Some of the first words out of his mouth were criticizing the haredim, the ultra-Orthodox Jews who have such a big influence in Israeli politics and life. “God doesn’t care about their peyes? God cares what’s in your heart!” He exclaimed. I don’t believe in God but I couldn’t really argue.

Then the topic of conversation became even more political, and Yossi provided evidence that secularism was no indication of sanity in Israeli politics. Perhaps foolishly, we asked him about the potential for the Israeli/Palestinian peace talks being organized by John Kerry. Yossi had no hope for the peace talks. He expected the Palestinians to all be expelled to Jordan, and he seemed to have no problem with that outcome.

He also had some not-so-nice things to say about the non-Jewish African foreign workers in Israel. He called them cushim, a derogatory term in Hebrew for Black, and seemed at least implicitly to distinguish them from the Ethiopian Jewish citizens of Israel, who he presumably liked better. He thought the African foreign workers would soon all be deported as well.

But the most interesting part of the conversation emerged when we asked him what languages he spoke besides Hebrew. English, he said, some Arabic, and Thai. Wait, Thai? “Why do you speak Thai?” We asked. “My wife is Thai,” he replied. Not a Thai foreign worker, mind you. Yossi had gone to Thailand, fallen in love, married a Thai woman, and brought her back to Israel. They had three children together. Those half Iraqi-Jewish half-Thai Hebrew-speaking children are Jewish in the eyes of Reform and Reconstructionist rabbis, but probably not most Conservative ones and certainly not the Orthodox. They will one day be Jewish enough to serve in the Israeli army, but not Jewish enough to be buried at the Jewish military cemetery on Mount Herzl were they to be killed in action.

We asked Yossi if his wife, who spoke perfect Hebrew, had converted. They’d been trying, he said, but it was very difficult. Conversion to Judaism in Israel is held under Orthodox supervision, and the rules are very strictly enforced. Meanwhile, the local government in Tel Aviv called on her whenever they needed an interpreter for the community of Thai workers there.

After all that information, my father and I were bewildered. By then, the ride was over. As we left the cab, Yossi offered us a parting gift. He had enjoyed the conversation, and so he gave us something we could enjoy: his self-produced CD of Mizrachi (eastern/oriental) Jewish music. Only in Israel.


Written by David Weinfeld

August 16, 2013 at 17:57

The Supreme Court is made up of Stoned Sophomores Writing Papers about Huck Finn at 2 AM

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By Wiz

Webster’s Dictionary defines “lazy freshman” as “One who cuts corners in a sloppy and cliched manner, such as beginning a college essay with the dictionary’s definition of a word.”

Seriously, has anyone ever read a student’s paper that was good and began with a dictionary definition? It is almost always a way to fill up space (gotta get to 500 words somehow) and/or sound pretentious.

Which is why the following article about the Supreme Court is so depressing/sadly predictable: “A new study in The Marquette Law Review found that the justices had used dictionaries to define 295 words or phrases in 225 opinions in the 10 years starting in October 2000. That is roughly in line with the previous decade but an explosion by historical standards.”

Though it did produce this pretty awesomely snarky line about the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court: “One of the words he looked up was ‘of.’ He learned that it means pretty much what you think it means.”

Is the cause: 1. declining intellectual standards on the Court, 2. the intellectually-vacant but Tea-Party-pleasing notion that the Supreme Court just calls “balls and strikes,” 3. the unchecked power of Big Dictionary in Washington DC?

Written by Peter Wirzbicki

June 13, 2011 at 21:14

Is that Mr. Bin Laden to you? A question for the NYT’s public editor

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by Wotty

To the Public Editor:

On Monday’s front page, Osama Bin Laden is variously referred to as “Mr. Bin Laden” or simply, and more frequently, “Bin Laden” (not to mention “bin Laden”). The Times’ policy of preceding everyone’s name with an honorific is certainly quaint and perhaps obsolete—to echo a recent, infamous judgement of the Geneva Conventions—but, like the Conventions, if the policy is in place, it must be applied equally to all, especially in the hardest cases; otherwise it becomes worse than meaningless. On what criteria was the Bin Laden decision made? Does it establish a precedent? If so, can we anticipate similar decisions in the future for America’s enemies?

Written by (wotty)

May 2, 2011 at 11:52

Solidarity versus Sympathy

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by Weiner

Some people, like economist Paul Krugman, or historian Judith Leavitt, think the labor struggles in Wisconsin are of major historical significance, possibly akin to the uprisings in Egypt. Others, like my free-market friend Josh, think the fight for or against collective bargaining for state employees in Wisconsin is “important,” but “the pundit class is in danger of overstating the stakes.”

GREEN BAY, WI - FEBRUARY 08: Green Bay Packers fans gather at Lambeau Field for the Packers victory ceremony on February 8, 2011 in Green Bay, Wisconsin.  (Photo by Matt Ludtke/Getty Images)

I’m not sure. Frankly, we don’t even know how important the revolts in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Bahrain and elsewhere are going to be. In The Landscape of History, John Lewis Gaddis insists that we know much more about the past than we do the present, because we don’t yet have the benefit of perspective. I invoke Communist leader Zhou Enlai, when asked in the late 20th century about the impact of the French Revolution of 1789: “It is too soon to say.”

I do know this much though: I support the workers of Wisconsin. But I’m not sure I’m in solidarity with them. Let me explain.

Lots of people are telling me to be in “solidarity” with the workers of Wisconsin. I recently got an email from GSOC, New York University’s Graduate Student Organizing Committee, the proto-union for graduate students/teaching assistants affiliated with United Auto Workers, telling me exactly that: “We’re All Badgers now!” the subject line proclaims triumphantly, as the body of the text tells me that on Thursday, February 24, 2011 (today), I should “wear red in solidarity with the workers of Wisconsin.” Of course, GSOC is not alone. Apparently several members of the Superbowl champion Green Bay Packers, including corrnerback, captain and union rep Charles Woodson (pictured here), as well as Packer veterans, voiced their support for the public workers of Wisconsin. So have the National Football League Players Association (NFLPA), the union for NFL players.

There’s something wonderful about this sentiment. It bring to mind Karl Marx’s inspirational cry at the end of the Communist Manifesto: “workers of the world, unite!”

And yet, as much as I am moved and inspired into sympathy by it, I give pause.

Because my experiences as a “worker,” a teaching assistant and graduate student at NYU, is not all that similar to the experiences of most public sector workers in Wisconsin, or private sector workers in factories, or the multi-millionaire athletes in the National Football League.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines “solidarity” as: “the fact or quality, on the part of communities, etc., of being perfectly united or at one in some respect, esp. in interests, sympathies, or aspirations; spec. with reference to the aspirations or actions of trade-union members” (emphasis mine).

A second meaning refers to the “community or perfect coincidence of (or between) interests” (emphasis mine).

My understanding, then, is that “solidarity” refers to a very strong bond or connection of interests.

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Written by David Weinfeld

February 24, 2011 at 07:27

Posted in labor, language, unions

The Term “Entitlement” is Orwellian Bullshit

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by Weiner

I thought Barack Obama’s State of the Union speech was ok. But in reading Ross Douthat’s response to it, I was reminded of something that annoys me to no end. Douthat has been skewered here before, but he’s certainly not the only one guilty of this. The supposedly smart (though not according to Paul Krugman) Paul Ryan also attacked American “entitlement” programs, like Obama’s new Affordable Care Act.

This drives me nuts.

The term “entitlement” in American political discourse is Orwellian bullshit. It has unnecessarily negative connotations. We often talk of people being spoiled, of having a “sense of entitlement” that they don’t deserve. People feel “entitled” to things that they didn’t work for, or pay for, or earn.

But there is nothing undeserving about healthcare. Or social security. Or roads, police forces, fire departments, public schools, and the postal service. These are things the American people pay for through taxes (like people of most other countries). They are not being spoiled. They are getting what they deserve (actually, they’re probably not getting enough of what they justly deserve, but that’s another story).

You go to a store, you pay for a chocolate bar, and you get the chocolate bar. It’s not that you’re “entitled” to it in some spoiled child way. You are not undeserving of that chocolate bar. You paid for it. It belongs to you. Free market capitalists should understand this.

Let’s get rid of “entitlement” and change it to “benefit.” Or something more positive. Because the American people are in fact entitled to more than they are getting.

Written by David Weinfeld

January 26, 2011 at 08:29