Monday, January 27, 2014

The 'Fraier'... An Israeli phenomenon

Growing up Jewish in Canada, my siblings and I were always reminded by our parents to behave properly in public.  Our parents, grandparents and teachers were constantly teaching us the dangers of causing a 'chilul Hashem', loosely translated as 'desecrating God's name'.  God forbid we behaved in a way that would cause our Canadian neighbors to look at us, shake their heads and think something negatively about Jews.  We had to be vigilant about being a light unto the nations, remember who we were at all times and be a shining example to those around us.  We were always polite when getting on and off the bus (and quiet and well-behaved while on the bus), taking the time to smile and thank the bus driver for taking us to where we needed to go safely.  We would stand quietly in the checkout line when our mother took us shopping and help her bag the groceries and lug them to the car.  We were quiet in libraries and museums and didn't (or tried not to) fight with our siblings in public.  We were taught to let the old lady standing behind us in the supermarket checkout line take our place ahead of us so she would not have to stand on her feet longer than necessary and to graciously let someone into our lane if they indicated that they needed to switch lanes.  

Then I came to Israel.  I know this doesn't really make any sense, but the vibe I got almost immediately is that there is no reason to worry about not causing a 'chilul Hashem' because we are all Jews.  No need to worry about what other people think of us.  We ARE the other people.  And then there was that new word that cropped up every once in a while, usually used in a derogatory fashion:

No, it's not some stainless steel monstrosity of a machine that you dunk your 13 pound turkey in in order to deep fry it for Thanksgiving and it's not the black-robed monk that might live in the monastery nearby.  I don't know if there's a direct accurate English translation of the word, but for lack of a better one, I'll use this: patsy.

But you could substitute it for doormat, sucker, pushover, sitting duck, easy mark or another half dozen words.  To call someone a 'fraier' is the ultimate Israeli insult.  It has all sorts of negative connotations, from being a wimp or weakling, to being not strong enough in your convictions, but mostly it means that you consistently allow everyone to step all over you.

In the average Israeli's attempt to not be a fraier, they've forgotten about etiquette in public places.  They don't know you, so what do they care if they smoke in your face?  Putting out the cigarette because you politely informed them that the smoke is bothering you would be like they were backing down.  Hence: fraier.  Allowing you into the lane in front of them would be letting you win.  Hence: fraier.  Allowing you to skip ahead of them in the checkout line because you have three items to their hundred items would be showing you their weakness.  Hence: fraier.

About three years after I made Aliya, I went to the supermarket with my husband a couple of nights before Passover.  Obviously, the place was nuts.  You'd think that we were about to be cut off from food and water for the next six months.  We finally checked out and had just loaded our groceries into the trunk of the car when we noticed a skirmish in the parking lot.  With only one lane to pass, there was one car attempting to leave the parking lot while another car was attempting the same thing but coming from the other direction.  They were hood to hood, headlights to headlights and neither one of them was agreeing to back up in reverse to allow the other one the right of way.  We stood there, the two of us, flabbergasted at the nonsense that was going on in the parking lot.  Everyone who exited the supermarket attempted to get involved, giving their opinion about who they thought was in the right, who was in the wrong and who should back down and claim defeat.  Within minutes, you had a parking lot with about forty people, screaming at one another while the two drivers were leaning on their horns without pause.  Honestly, it was one of the most ridiculous thing I have witnessed in my life.  And all because neither of these drivers wanted to be labeled as the 'fraier'.  I've seen more than my fair share of screaming matches occur in the supermarket checkout lines because of some stupid fight about 'not being the fraier'.  Everyone within a mile radius of the fight always seems to have an opinion about what happened and they are not quiet about sharing their views.  No matter what the fight is about, the results are all the same.  Basically, all hell breaks out.  Chaos ensues and everyone goes home frazzled.  

My usual reaction when I'm on the receiving end of such rudeness is by making a snarky comment to the aggressor.  My brother who has lived in this country for about a decade less than I have has managed to find quieter and more interesting and effective ways to respond to Israeli rudeness.

I was sitting with him at a cafe on Derech Beit Lechem.  We were sitting outside - it was a warm spring day and we had just ordered from the menu.  Along came a loud-mouthed woman who plunked herself down at the table right next to us, proceeded to light her cigarette and then not just smoked it, but kept turning her face towards our table and blowing the offensive smoke directly into our nostrils.  My brother saw that I was getting steamed up about it and he didn't say anything except fiddled with his phone for a bit.  Then he placed his phone in the center of the table, put a finger to his mouth and said, "just laugh at whatever I say, but don't look at her."  I complied and we pretended to laugh about something.  Just then a ping went off from HER phone and she picked it up, read the text and then looked anxiously around her.  She then put out her cigarette, jumped up and stormed off.  Now I was shocked.  My brother started laughing so hard that he could barely catch his breath.  And then he explained.  He had recognized her as one of the local real estate agents that had shown him some apartments a couple months earlier.  He still had her number programmed into his phone.  Instead of getting into an altercation with her about her smoking, he simply scrolled through his contacts, and (anonymously) texted her the following:  "you are being very rude by smoking in everyone's faces.  Please either put out your cigarette or leave."  Flustered and probably spooked as to who had texted her, she quickly did as she was asked.  It was the highlight of my day.

Years later, we were flying to Poland together to meet our parents for a roots trip.  On the LOT flight, my brother got the aisle seat, I was in the middle and an ultra-Orthodox woman was sitting by the window seat.  She had unilaterally decided that she should take possession of both arm rests and that sticking her elbows out to the point where they were sticking into my rib cage was her absolute right and no amount of asking her nicely to please move over was working.  I told my brother that I was going nuts.  He smiled and got up.  "Get up," he said.  I stood up and he switched with me, angling his body towards the woman by the window.  Being ultra-Orthodox, she freaked out and plastered herself to the window for the entire four-hour flight.  Without saying a single solitary word, he managed to put both of these rude women in their place and showed them that he was no fraier....

But what I find interesting is people's reactions when you do step up and make a kind and thoughtful gesture towards someone you don't know.  I was recently in the supermarket with a shopping cart filled to the rim with food.  A man stood behind me in line with a French baguette, a tub of humus and a cucumber.  He didn't say a word, but was waiting patiently for me to check out.  I took the initiative and asked him if he wanted to go in front of me.  He seemed shocked.  "It's okay?  You sure?"  I assured him that it was fine and he happily took my place in line.  Not a minute later, an older woman came into the line with just a couple of things.  I nodded to her and told her that she can go before me too, if she wanted to.  Again, shock registered on her face.  "You're so lovely, thank you," she said.  In the end, I probably lost less than five minutes of my time, but knowing that I did the right thing made up for it tenfold.

Did they think I was a fraier?  Probably.  But it must have confused them since I seemed happy with being labeled as such.  I guess what I'm trying to say is that despite the fact that we are all Jews living together in a Jewish country, we should still be vigilant about causing a 'chilul Hashem', and that we should strive to behave with dignity in public.  We should forget about possibly being labeled a 'fraier' and focus on trying to do the right thing.  Letting someone into your lane doesn't make you a fraier.  It makes you a nice person.  Maybe we'll turn the tables around and over time we'll redefine the word.

My name is Chavi, and although I'm definitely no pushover (ask my husband....) I am sometimes called a fraier.  And I'm proud of it.

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Language Laughs.....

I am a quiet but ardent fan of etymology.  In simple terms, it means I love words and how they came to be.  The dictionary explains etymology as the study of the origin of words and the way in which their meanings have changed throughout history.  As someone who probably reads more than I sleep, I'm easily swept away by perfect prose, poetic descriptions and exquisite turn-of-phrase.
Language has always fascinated me - the threads of commonality between different languages and how some words - albeit spelled differently - clearly come from the same word.  For example, the word 'sugar' looks and sounds almost identical in more than ten languages:

French - sucre
Turkish - şeker ("shek-air")
Icelandic - sykur
Lithuanian - cukrus
Latvian - cukurs
Estonian - suhkur
Finnish - sokeri
Norwegian/Danish - sukker
Swedish - socker
Hungarian - cukor
Czech - cukr
Slovak - cukor
Slovene - sladkor
Polish - cukier
And let's not forget the Hebrew word for sugar which is סוכר, pronounced "sukar".   
I teach a little bit of etymology to my piano students when teaching them musical terms and expressions.  One musical term is called 'ritard' and it means to slow down.  Of course, I get a couple of snorts and muffled laughs whenever I say the word out loud, but then I asked them if they've ever heard the word before.  They often roll their eyes and say something along the lines of, "yeah, like when you call someone a retard."  I then explain that when referring to someone as a retard, besides the fact that it's a nasty thing to say to anyone, you're basically saying that that person is slow.  That he's not moving at the same speed as everyone else.  Then I point to the music, where the word 'ritard' or 'rit' is written - usually at the end of a piece, and then their eyes light up.  They get it and now it somehow makes so much sense.
But leaving etymology on the side for now, we all have had those laughing-until-you're-crying moments when our kids have said the funniest things by simply using the wrong word or pronouncing it incorrectly.  I was playing Bananagrams with my kids one Shabbat afternoon, using the anagrams version of the game.  Basically a bunch of tiles are put out in the middle of the table and you have to find a 4 letter word from the tiles displayed in order to "take" the word.  The person with the most tiles wins.  So a bunch of tiles are in the middle of the table and one of my kids grabs four tiles - F O R N.  I asked them what word they were taking.  The child replied, "Forn.  You know, like a forn exchange student."  I can't remember the last time I laughed so hard.  And before you bash me for laughing at my kid, you know you would have too.
My grandmother, taking cues from me, her first grandchild, continued to call macaroni, 'racamoni' until the day she died, since that was what I called it when I was all of two.  Being an immigrant from Europe, she never remembered which word was correct, so she stuck with racamoni, since that word was stuck in her memory.  When my youngest was a toddler, she used to point at the butterflies flying by and would call them 'flutterbys', which, when you think about it, makes much more sense than it's given word.  I've always wondered whether someone working at Oxford's might have made a clerical error when the word was first entered into the dictionary.  It's much more believeable that the insect would 'flutter by', as opposed to what now comes to mind - a stick of butter with wings attached to it....
My son, being the only XY chromosome besides my husband, is constantly surrounded by everything female.  From unmentionables hanging in the shower, to the plethora of hair and make-up products that line the bathroom counters, he is not a big fan of female paraphernalia and whatever goes along with that.  One day, about 5 years ago, I was taking my kids out and one of my girls was in a horrific mood.  Temperamental and moody with a death-stare that could bring you to your knees, you could almost see the smoke coming out of her ears.  My son, sitting in the front with me, leaned over while I was at a red light and whispered conspiratorially, "I know why she's in a bad mood."  I glanced over at him.  "Oh, yeah?  Why is that?" I asked.  He leaned in closer.  "I don't know exactly what it is, but I've heard them talk about it. I think she has RPG.  You know, that thing that women get every once in a while."  Thank G-d I was at a red light.  I would have crashed the car. 
Making pronunciation and grammatical mistakes in one language is funny enough.  Throw two languages in the mix and you've got a recipe for the giggles.  I think in English - it being my mother tongue - and as such, am always translating my thoughts into Hebrew, which explains why I speak Hebrew rather slowly.  When I was recently in Toronto for a visit, I spent a lot of time in the hospital with my grandfather z"l.  I was often the only one present when the doctors came in for either rounds or to check on his status, and being able to talk in my native tongue - especially about medical terms and jargon - was a relief.  Living in Israel, there are certain activities that I do in Hebrew without batting an eyelash - grocery shopping, mall shopping, ordering gas delivery etc.  But I'm still on shaky ground whenever I have to deal with anything medical.  My medical Hebrew is not up to par and I'm always nervous that they don't quite understand what I'm saying and that instead of giving me the appropriate migraine medication, they're giving me some kind of special cream for athlete's foot.  
Being English speakers living in Israel, there are hundreds - if not thousands - of funny incidents where language plays a major role.  My father, looking for popcorn in the supermarket, could not figure out how to say the word in Hebrew, so asked a clerk where תירס נפוח (bloated corn) would be.  They laughed right in his face.  Of course, that was after he asked for a שעועית בצורה של חלק בגוף (bean in the shape of a body part) and then pointed to where his kidneys would be.  But you gotta hand it to him, he's certainly creative!  I'd definitely want him on my team if we were playing Charades...
When we first moved to Jerusalem, my brother had come for a visit and I was taking him on a walking tour of our neighborhood.  After a little while, he pointed to a spray-painted sign on the side of a building that spelled מקלט (shelter) and said, "wow, there are a lot of makolets (markets) in this area!"
The funniest, by far, happened to my husband, who - in my humble opinion - speaks Hebrew like a native.  With an almost perfect accent, an admirable vocabulary and a good command of Hebrew idioms, he still slipped up.  Big time.  He was once talking to a native Israeli who told him about the sale of these beautiful עציצים (small plants/bushes) at the local nursery.  He then blanched and asked her to repeat the word for small plant or bush.  When she asked him why, he started to laugh.  He told her about the time - six years earlier - when he went into a nursery to buy just that, but thought the word was slightly different.  He entered the nursery and asked the woman working there if she could show him the nicest ציצים she might have.  Apparently, he had asked to see her breasts.  Not just her breasts, but the nicest breasts she might have.  According to my husband, she didn't bat an eyelash, didn't call the police to have him arrested for sexual harassment, and surprisingly, didn't even correct him.  She just smiled and showed him an array of beautiful plants.  

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Getting older...

The funniest thing happened to me last week while I was teaching piano to one of my younger students.  She is a sweet, smiley, funny little girl who is a pleasure to teach and I enjoy our time together every week.  She also loves to talk.  Non-stop.  Mid-music, mid-lesson, even mid-thought, and while I prefer she not talk mid-song, she is so impossibly cute that it's hard for me not to listen to her endless questions, comments and general chatter.  Whoever said that bartenders and hairdressers are always in the know have never taken piano lessons.  We piano teachers are privy to a lot more of what goes on in our students' private lives than just their knowledge of music theory.  So, during one of our many conversations, she asked me how many students I was currently teaching this year.  When I told her 22, her eyes widened.  "How old is your oldest student?" she asked.  I responded that this year I was teaching an adult one morning a week.  When she asked me how old he was, I said he was in his early to mid fifties.  Then she tilted her head up at me and innocently asked, "so is he older or younger than you?"

Had this come out of someone else's mouth - someone my own age - I would have been super-insulted.  But I laughed, of course.  To a nine year old, forty-two must seem absolutely ancient.  When I  informed her that I was exactly the same age as her mother, she just shrugged and got right back to the music, as if our entire exchange was a non-issue.  

I related this funny story to a few of my friends and while it got quite a few chuckles, it jumpstarted a conversation about aging and getting older.  I have noticed that I'm holding my novels further and further away from me in order to read (I'm happily in denial...) and while, as a redhead, I will never turn gray (I'll turn blonder and then white instead...), and thus am not currently coloring my hair on a regular basis like almost all of my friends, my bathroom cabinet is filled with anti-wrinkle cream, hydrating lotions and 'promise-to-make-me-look-younger' makeup.  I've noticed more and more wrinkles around my eyes, which I keep telling my children are caused because I smile so much, but let's face facts: none of us are getting any younger.

I remember visiting a close friend in New York about 8 years ago.  I was about 34 years old then, and psyched to be 'on my own' and away from the responsibilities and constant demands of being a full-time mom, even if only for a few days.  My friend and I were walking through Soho when a couple of young guys walking by whistled at us and invited us to go out with them.  We politely declined, laughed it off and continued on our shopping excursion.  But I couldn't help feel elated that a stranger looked at me and thought me young and beautiful enough to whistle at.  Especially when every morning I looked in the mirror and saw nothing but a sleep-deprived, hair-messed, pulled-at-the-seams mom who was more likely knee-deep in laundry and dirty dishes than the carefree young woman those young guys seemed to see.

Truth be told, I feel better about myself now than I did 8 years ago.  My kids sleep through the night giving me my much-needed beauty sleep and they regularly help out with chores, so I'm not always knee deep in laundry.  I've lost all that post-pregnancy weight and I maintain a healthy lifestyle.  And now that we are not in need of babysitters, going out at the last minute is doable.  And I can wear white with no worries that there is peanut-butter and jam handprint stamped somewhere on my backside.  Yes, the forties are definitely giving me more "me time" than the thirties ever did.  And yet, we all wish, for some reason, that we were still in our thirties.  Or twenties...

I think what scares me is the ageism that is rampant everywhere I go.  I see it and you must all see it.  The way young people in general ignore older people, or even turn away averting their eyes.  I've seen it in shops in Canada and here in Israel.  I'll walk into a clothing store alongside an older woman and the saleswoman will come straight over to me and ask me if I need any help, while completely ignoring the older woman and allowing her to browse on her own without offering a helping hand.  Truth be told, I hate being helped in stores and much prefer to look around on my own, while I'm sure this older woman could have used some advice and a helping hand.  But I think that what's really going on underneath it all is that we are all afraid to admit to ourselves that one day we will be that old woman.  So we ignore her.  We don't mean to, but subconsciously we don't want to contemplate the possibility that in the not so distant future, that woman could be one of us.  That we will be the one holding a cane, wearing a hearing aide, and moving slower than just about everyone else, and that terrifies us to no end.

My grandfather, Zaida Good z"l (may he rest in peace) once told me something that I have never forgotten.  He was an amazing guy who had had a difficult life.  From all the pictures I'd seen - of his wedding, of holding my mother as a baby - he always seemed like an older man.  The Holocaust had clearly aged him and even though he was in his late twenties when he married my grandmother, to me he always looked so much older.  But he was always exercising and eating healthy.  He bought a used rowing machine when he was in his seventies and was still using it well into in his eighties and I'd watch him, giggling all the while, as he rowed back and forth as he watched the news.  He'd walk to and from shul three times a day in rain, snow and sleet and he always boasted that he was wearing the same size pants for over twenty years.  I think they were actually the same pair of pants.  One Shabbat I was looking at all his old pictures and came across one that was taken right after the war, before he married my grandmother.  I mentioned to him that he looked so young there, younger than I'd ever seen in any other picture.  He laughed and said, "you know, Chavale, that when I look in the mirror every morning I get the shock of my life.  In my head, I always feel like I'm that guy in the picture and it's only when I look in the mirror that I see that I'm older.  Inside I'm still twenty-eight, but that's not what everyone else sees."

So... age is mind over matter.  It's a cliche, but we've all heard it before and we know it to be true.  I know very old 40 year olds and very young 60 year olds, but I still can't forget what my grandfather said.  Even if you feel like that young 25 year old girl trapped in a 42 year old body, no one else sees you that way anymore.  We're lucky that we are part of a people who revere the aged, that we give them the respect and dignity that they deserve.  Not so in other cultures and countries.  

So the question is, if given the chance, would you want to live forever?  And if you could freeze time and live forever in good health at a certain age, what age would that be?

According to a new survey by the Pew Research Center, the average American isn’t interested in living forever—let alone extending life spans much beyond where they’re already at.  As of 2013, the current average U.S. life expectancy is 78.7 years. (This is the average between men and women - women generally have a longer life expectancy than men.) Pew’s findings show that our average ideal life span is 90 years: that’s how old most of us would choose to be when we die. The majority of those surveyed (56%) said they would personally refuse treatments that, if they existed, could prolong life by as little as a few decades. An even starker figure: only 4% of us want to live to be older than 120 years.

According to the Harris Poll - and this surprised me - the average age most adults would choose to live in perpetuity in good health is 50.  I would have thought twenty-one would be a popular choice, but apparently, most adults chose middle age as the perfect age to be stuck in forever, if given the chance.  

So while most of us don't want to live forever, we also don't want to age.  But since you can't have it both ways, we are stuck with the only option.  Aging.

And as my grandfather once said, "it's better than the alternative."