Say it in Hebrew

You have to live in Israel for a while before you start getting the nuances of modern Hebrew.Rak be’Yisrael – only in Israel – is a song title-turned TV show-cum catchprase that has sprung to mind a lot recently. It’s …

You have to live in Israel for a while before you start getting the nuances of modern Hebrew.Rak be’Yisrael - only in Israel – is a song title-turned TV show-cum catchprase that has sprung to mind a lot recently. It’s the combination of Passover and the upcoming Independence Day celebrations.

Linguistically, the country has been blessed with many phrases that might not exist only in Israel but have taken on a peculiarly Israeli tone: Ma ani agid lecha - what can I tell you? Hebrew has ma yesh ,/I>and Arabic has ma lesh, for example (what are you grumbling about?). But there are some phrases which are so homegrown or culturally loaded they are barely translatable: Davka, stam (just because) and balagan - the word for a mess which is so inimically Israeli (although its roots are actually Farsi, az ma?: so what?).

Yiddish and nowadays more often English have left their mark on Hebrew, but there are plenty of blue-and-white phrases summing up the quintessential Israeli character. Kacha stam, just like that.

Israelis, surprisingly, have nothing to worry about or at least they do not have a problem, “ein be’aya.” We live in a state of denial. “Ein ma la’asot,” – what can you do?

In an informal survey I carried out, the most frequently cited (and annoying) Hebrew catchphrases were: al tidag, yihiyeh beseder and smoch alai – don’t worry, it’ll be OK and trust me.

Why do we continue trusting that everything will always work out? Allahu akbar – God is great – might be the Muslim call to prayer and the Islamist battle cry but Elohim gadol – with the same meaning – is an expression of good faith, as it were. And the phrase: Ein lo Elohim – he has no God – meaning he has no moral restraints, is very Israeli from the opposite perspective. It’s even worse than the “lo ichpat li, ” I don’t care – in the sense of “I don’t give a damn.”

You have to live here for a while before you start getting the nuances of modern Hebrew. If you’re still at the stage when Israelis are annoyingly reminding you kol hathalot kashot (all beginnings are difficult) or asking me’eifo ata bamakor (where are you from originally?), you’re probably not there yet. If nothing else, you should try to listen to Hagashash Hahiver comedy skits to catch up with Israel’s modern cultural heritage – “Hevanta et zeh, Baruch?” (Did you understand that, Baruch?”) “Yofi, Nehama,” (“Great, Nehama,”) as comedian Shaike Ophir would have said.

The revival of the Hebrew language is one of the country’s greatest achievements – along with the fact that we’re still here. Or, as basketball player Tal Brody so quotably put it after Maccabi Tel Aviv’s big win against CSKA Moscow in 1977: Anahnu al hamapa ve’anahnu nisharim al hamapa!” (We’re on the map and we’re staying on the map!). Thanks to Brody’s pronunciation, it’s the only Hebrew catchphrase that can be legitimately said with a strong American accent.

Other phrases which give you a sporting chance of being accepted in society include kacha lo bonim homa (lit. you don’t build a wall like that, but used to mean that’s not the way to do something properly), first declared by TV announcer Yoram Arbel during an international soccer match. You can also use “Yalla Betar Yalla, ” the battle cry of Betar Jerusalem Football Club – but check you’re not surrounded by red-and-white (Hapoel) supporters or, to use another good Israeli phrase, oy va voy (woe is you). Local soccer fans (and not just Betar supporters) have some choice words you might not want to use any time you are not actually watching a match.

In Hebrew, anything goes: ein davar kazeh, ein davar kazeh (there’s no such thing as no such thing). Or, ein matzav (no way).

For obvious reasons, modern Hebrew grew up quickly in the military. Aharai, “after me,” is the call of officers from the days when they actually led their troops into war (and won) rather than watching on plasma screens in the war room (known by the acronym hamal).

Harder to translate are the words gibush (literally crystallization but used more for the intense period leading to the creation of a cohesive group) and ga’avat yehida, pride in the unit. The terms can be used out of the army for everything from school trips and class cohesion to building experiences in high-tech and business.

You don’t have to be in the country that long before you start using words like miluim (reserve duty) without translating them.

As the country celebrates its 60th anniversary, leave the “mazel tovs” to the Diaspora: Here we wish a hearty “Mazal tov.”

Magia lanu! We deserve it! The state’s first 60 years have not been easy – it’s been like one long drawn out gibush – but we have reason to be proud of what we’ve accomplished. And if you don’t believe me all I can ask is: Eifo ata hai? – where do you live?

Printed by courtesy of The Jerusalem Post.