What does it mean?

August 01, 2004

Acadian Accordions

A while back I was researching harmonicas, I had an idea on how to build them better and more versatile, and I stumbled across the Savoy Music Center. (Harmonicas and accordions work on the same principle, but where accordions have a bellows, harmonicas have your mouth.) It’s a wonderful site; if I ever get to Cajun country, I will be sure to visit it. In particular, I was taken by Marc Savoy’s autobiographical opus: Ponderings of a Reincarnated Neanderthal, which I have mirrored, since the site doesn’t provide a direct link. (You can get to it by pressing the “writings” button on the left.) It’s an inspiring tale of entrepreneurship. Marc Savoy is an accordion-playing boy who stumbles into building them out of sheer gumption, and a can-do attitude. He is now the premier builder of Cajun-style accordions.

After playing my first song on the Sidney Brown accordion, I was very very impressed, not just with the fact that it was handmade, but also with the way it handled. It had the response of my Hohner, but with a much smoother keyboard action. The tone was also a major improvement, but unfortunately it did not quite have the bass response that the old pre-wars had. I don't remember sleeping at all that night, and it was during this long sleepless night (which was destined to be one of many) that I decided to build an accordion also.


Up to this point I had pretty much tried to duplicate the design and measurements of the old pre-wars, but with these new reeds that were considerably longer and narrower than the old reeds, I realized that I would have to make some drastic changes and redesign the entire interior. Moreover, these Italian reeds were fitted to plates with a much closer tolerance than the old reeds were, and as a result were much more efficient in their air requirement. It was back to the drawing board. With a few test jigs, my mother's vacuum cleaner for a constant air source, a few pressure gauges, etc.; I came up with measurements that differed considerably from the ones I had been previously using.


By the fall of 1965, I had pretty much taken up my father's outdoor kitchen with my accordion building hobby. Accordion parts were scattered all over the place. Sawdust from the woodworking covered all the surfaces, so my father, who realized that I had developed a pretty good little business with accordions, told me one day, "Well, it looks like you want to be a musician and instrument maker, and since I would like to have my outdoor kitchen back, would you please re-establish yourself somewhere else?"

When I start to feel demoralized, I like reading stories like this. Marc Savoy gives the impression of being relaxed and energetic, friendly and enterprising, and honest. Someone to learn from.

UPDATE: Go here to learn more, and here for some music.

UPDATE: The words for accordion and harmonica in Hebrew are mapuah and mapuhit, respectively. The root is: n-p-h, the “n” assimilates into the “p” and doubles it. Other words from this root: nefah (volume), nafah (blew, exhaled), napah (blacksmith), nipeah (inflated), hitnapeah (became inflated).

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August 02, 2004

Tu b’av

Today is Tu b’av, about which it is written:

לא היו ימים טובים לישראל
כחמישה עשר באב וכיום הכיפורים
שבהם בנות ירושלים יוצאות בכלי לבן שאולים
שלא לבייש את מי שאין לו

ובנות ירושלים יוצאות וחולות בכרמים
ומה היו אומרות
שא נא בחור עיניך וראה מה אתה בורר לך
אל תיתן עיניך בנוי תן עיניך במשפחה
שקר החן והבל היופי אשה יראת ה' היא תתהלל

Lo’ hayu yamim tovim l’yisra’el
Kahamisha `asar b’av ukhyom hakipurim
Shebahem b’not y’rushalayim yos’ot bikhley lavan sh’ulim
Shelo’ l’vayesh et mi she’eyn lo

Uvnot y’rushalayim yos’ot v’holot bakramim
Uma hayu omrot
Sa na bahor `eyneykha ur’e ma ata borer l’kha
Al titen `eyneykha banoy ten `eyneykha bamishpaha
Sheqer hahen v’hevel hayofi isha yir’at hashem hi tithalal

There were no days so good for Israel
As the fifteenth of Av and Yom Kippur
In which the daughters of Jerusalem would go out in white clothing, borrowed
So as not to embarrass those who didn’t have any

And the daughters of Jerusalem would go out and dance in the vineyards
And what would they say
Lift up, young man, your eyes and see what you may choose for yourself
Don’t give your eyes to beauty give your eyes to family
Grace is deceit and beauty is worthless, a woman who fears the Lord will be praised

Ta`anit 4:8

The last three lines are understood to be three versions of what the young women sang as they danced. The beautiful ones said, “Lift up, young man, your eyes…” the rich ones said, “Don’t give your eyes to beauty…” and the virtuous ones said, “Grace is deceit and beauty is worthless…”

Nowadays, Tu b’av is something like an Israeli version of Valentine’s Day – in modern Israel it is often called Yom Ha’ahava, the Day of Love. You can imagine where it goes from there, especially considering that, unlike Valentine’s Day, it comes in the middle of the summer.

Where does the name Tu b’av come from? In Jewish tradition, numbers are written using letters of the alphabet, sort of like roman numerals. But in the Jewish tradition, all letters of the alphabet are used, starting with the first letter. The first to the tenth letters (alef to yud) have the values one to ten. After that, the letters (kaf to quf) have the values 20 to 100. After that, the letters resh, shin, and tav have the values 200, 300, and 400. After that they double-up: 500 is tav-quf, 600 is tav-resh, etc. Numbers in-between are formed by combining letters, for example 21 is kaf-alef, 20-1. Normally, you would expect 15 to be written with the letters for 10 and 5, however, this would spell one of the names of God, so instead the letters for 9 and 6 are used. Nine is tet and six is vav, which can be read tet-vav, but is often read as a word: tu.

Tu b’av also has a personal, and doubly appropriate, meaning for me. It is the birthday of my beloved wife: Happy birthday, ra`ayati, yonati, yafati, `ad me’a v`esrim!

More about Tu b’av here and here.

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Nowhere Man

From Dick Morris (via Amish Tech Support) at the New York Post:

Last time I checked, Sen. John Kerry was 60 years old. But to listen to his speech last night at the Democratic National Convention, you would think he was still in his 20s.

He opened up his talk with a lengthy and evocative description of his childhood and what it was like growing up in divided Berlin. He told us of the "goose bumps" he remembers getting when the band struck up "Stars and Stripes Forever."

Then, after this long rendition of his childhood, he tells us at length what it was like to serve in Vietnam for the four months that he was there. So far, so good.

But then he spent only about one minute talking about what he has done since.

Oddly, his absence of biography confirms the impression I formed of him during my White House years: He's a back-bencher. I never can recall a single time that his name came up in any discussion of White House strategy on anything. He was the man who wasn't there. We were always figuring out how to deal with Ted Kennedy or Pat Moynihan or Tom Daschle or Phil Gramm, or Al D'Amato or Bob Dole or Jesse Helms or Orin Hatch or Joe Biden. But nobody every asked about John Kerry.

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Presidential Election Market

Iowa Electronic Markets runs futures markets, similar to the futures markets in stocks, on all kinds of questions. The players are betting real money on a wide variety of questions: they are people who feel expert enough to put their money where their mouth is. I am inclined to take them seriously – they conform to the wise-crowd model, which I have talked about before.

Among other things, they have a winner-takes-all futures market on the presidential elections. Here is the contract – the description of how it works. Here is a graph of the daily prices since it opened (via Instapundit). As you can see, at the moment Bush is ahead, just barely.

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August 03, 2004

Jerusalem Syndrome

I lived in Jerusalem for about five years, one year in the Old City. (I still live not far from Jerusalem.) It is an exciting city, for reasons that I’ve written about before, but magnified. One additional factor – all kinds of interesting and colorful people are attracted, from all over the world. Living in the Old City, of course, means living in the center of the maelstrom. My bedroom window looked directly, across a small alley, into the dining room of Gutman Locks. A few doors down, I was neighbors with Chaim David. It’s certainly fun, if you can stand having tourists poking their heads in your windows, thinking that your home is a museum, and you one of the props. The street that I lived on looked a lot like this picture (more here). Here’s a panoramic view of the Zion gate, a two minute walk from my house at the time, which I used to drive through every day (more here, for a view of the center of the New City go here).

At the extreme end of the colorful characters attracted to Jerusalem (so colorful, that for me they are not interesting), are those afflicted with Jerusalem Syndrome (more here and here):
The malady called Jerusalem Syndrome is no joke. Afflicted tourists have been found wandering in the Judean desert wrapped in hotel bed sheets or crouched at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, waiting to birth the infant Jesus.
Amritas appears to have discovered one of them, a talented comics artist: Michael Netzer (“original Hebrew” here).
And God spoke unto me and said: Stand up Michael. And I stood up unto my feet and I said: Here I am. And he said unto me: From the time that I spread the heavens and the earth I have named you Michael Netzer a sprout of the root of David the son of Abraham the father of Israel my first born and in you I shall raise my messenger and my faithful for the time of the end of days.
Some questions Amritas brings up:
I've learned that Netzer first discovered American comics (in Arabic translation!) as a child in Lebanon, moved to the US at age 11, broke into the industry at 19, and ultimately moved to Israel, changing his name from Nasser to Netzer (its Hebrew equivalent?).
Yes, at least phonologically (I don’t know what it means in Arabic). “Netzer” reflects current Hebrew pronunciation, in the orthography I use on this site it would be: Neser. You can see it in Arabic here (third word, transliterated: ’ln’sr, the first three are: gm’l `bd ’ln’sr – Gama’l `Abd ’alNa’ser). In Hebrew the word means “sprout” (noun), and it is sometimes used to refer to the Messiah, who is to be a “sprout” from the house of King David. I’m sure this played into Michael Netzer’s pathology. One wonders what influence it had on the original, who came from the city of Nazareth, in Hebrew Naseret, from the same root. In Hebrew, the word for Christian is Nosri – Nazarene, which could also be interpreted as an adjective from the word neser.
How often is Hebrew handwritten in print (rather than cursive)?
Never. This is the first time I’ve seen a text (as opposed to a sign) written using the print form of the letters. Unless you count Torah scrolls and the like, but that looks quite different (Hebrew column on left. This is an example of a tiqun, used to learn to read the Torah. The left column is how it appears in a Torah scroll, which is hand written, the right column is fully pointed).

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Bitter Envy

Someone called jinnderella at LGF has some nice things to say about Rishon Rishon:

Usually being a pagan sociobiologist works out fine for me, but in the Dark Times I confess that I look at the Jews with some of the bitter envy and hunger that all outsiders do. At Rishon-Rishon I can get a feel for the faith. He even has Hebrew lessons!

“Bitter envy” is often the way we think about ourselves, too. Thanks, jinnderella!

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Nelson Ascher posts a long J'Accuse-style series of comments, example:

Most Israelis killed in the Intifada were civilians while most Palestinians killed were combatants. Besides, a sizable portion of the Palestinians were killed by other Palestinians. Why does Europe continue to back politically, diplomatically and financially the Palestinians. Arafat was elected in a fake election and his term has been over for many years. Normally one calls such a politician, a dictator. Is that what he is called in Europe? We know that the Arab countries want to destroy Israel. How do we know this? They said it themselves. The abolition of Israel is still in the PA’s charter. Israel has not tried to destroy any Arab country. Objectively, the Jews need a country because a third of them has been murdered by Europeans. Half of Israel’s population came from Arab countries and Iran from where they were ethnically cleansed. Why, then, does Europe consider Israel the aggressor?

The Palestinians have been incessantly targeting Israeli civilians. That is a war crime and a war against humanity for whoever believes seriously in international law. Europe could help stop these crimes by withdrawing financial, diplomatic and political support for Palestine. Why doesn’t it do it?

OK: the Palestinians are Arabs and the Arabs have what? Oil? Then, can we say that what the Europeans do is “all for oil”?

I have often wondered why Israel is often accused of aggression against Arab countries when they are in an official state of war with Israel? All Arab countries declared war with Israel in 1948. Except for Egypt, Jordan, and I think Morocco and Qatar, the state of war continues. This is definitely true of Syria and Lebanon, two countries against which Europeans have recently accused Israel of aggression.

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August 04, 2004

Nelson Ascher describes how he died

I began this blog talking about worldview. My central message: it informs everything we think and do, and most people don’t even know it exists. Our worldview is more central to our sense of self than anything else. To change it, in a very real sense, is like dying. This is why people usually hold onto their beliefs despite all evidence to the contrary.

This is not necessarily a bad thing. Sometimes the evidence to the contrary turns out to be false, or to prove something other than what it seems to prove. It is why I am a great believer in diversity – I am grateful to those who inexplicably keep alive discarded ideas, sometimes they turn out to be indispensable.

Nelson Asher describes the impact of 9/11 on his worldview, how one unignorable fact changed it beyond recognition:

I spent a month or so coming to terms with the fact that I had to change my whole worldview, that it wasn't just a matter of some derranged terrorists and of an isolated incident.

My view of Europe and the Muslims, democracy and dictatorship, the Arab-Israeli conflict, human rights and the Euro-American left, the UN and the EU, of the late 20th century and the post-Cold War world, Clinton and Bush and Chirac and Blair and Schröder and Putin, of religion and secularism, of many intellectuals, writers, philosophers and movie-makers, even of human nature had to change.

There was almost nothing in my mind that didn't have to be seriously reconsidered. This was the meaning of "everything has changed" for me: there actually are mosters, vampires, werewolves, death-cults and, besides, people I considered perfectly reasonable and rational were their objective allies and rooted for their victory.

It is rare to find a person with this kind of courage. In a very real sense, Nelson Ascher describes how he died.

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Rather "was reborn"?

(One would hope that reports of N.A.'s death have been greaty exaggerated.)

Posted by: Barry Meislin at August 4, 2004 02:08 PM Permalink

I thought that having “describes” in present tense would be enough for people to understand that he’s still alive.

Posted by: David Boxenhorn at August 4, 2004 06:52 PM Permalink

There were certain so to say objective circumstances that helped me in the process of changing my worldview. One of them is that I had already passed through an earlier historical event that forced me to reconsider many things.
My father, who is alive, aged 81, was diagnosed in 1988 with colon cancer. I had never visited the old land, that is, Hungary with him. I didn’t know then that, after surgery, he would eventually overcome the illness. So I decided to make a longer visit to Hungary with him in 89. Also, in 87, one of the best Yugoslav poets, Vasko Popa, had visited my country, and I interviewed him for my paper. During the next year, a friend of mine, born in the Yugoslav Vojvodina, a region that had belonged to Hungary until the end of WW1 and where almost everyone spoke both Serbian and Hungarian, worked on his translation of an anthology of Popa’s poetry. Though I know no Serbo-Croatian, I helped him with some stylistic decisions and translated for the volume a poem the Mexican poet Octavio Paz had written on Popa. By mid-89, the anthology was published, and, as Belgrade is not so far from Budapest, I also decided to take it personally to Popa there. While dad and I were in Eastern Europe, during the summer of that year, things none of us had ever thought possible began to happen and I stayed in Europe till November, writing about the end of communism for my paper. My stay in Yugoslavia allowed me to get a glimpse of the deep enmity between Serbs and Croats and to have some idea of future problems in the Balkans. People I talked to in both countries also assured me that the deposition of Romania’s Ceausescu would be a bloody affair. The whole thing, though not the first, was doubtlessly the most important occasion I had up to then to see the Western left amazed and in denial.

Posted by: nelson ascher at August 5, 2004 06:05 AM Permalink

But there are other, more personal things that made my change of mind easier after 911.
São Paulo’s cultural environment is rather small and everyone knows and is more or less in touch with everyone else. Being someone who writes poetry, I was badly in need to remain for some time far from the older local poets in order to try and overcome their influence on my work. As Greta Garbo, I also wanted to be alone for some time in order to read more and develop my own more or less independent ideas on some subjects. When 911 happened, the fact that I was far from my own cultural milieu was, in its own way, quite helpful. Had I been in Brazil, I would have doubtlessly been influenced by the people I used to be in touch with and whose opinions were quite unanimously anti-American. Neither would I have felt so free to write what I thought because of subtle social pressures. Writing what I wanted to write, I would have felt rather ill at ease with people who not only disagreed with me but also disapproved of my positions and with whom I would have dinner two or three times in the same week. I went to Paris in May 2001 and didn’t even revisit Brazil before this year’s January. By then, I had had time to solidify my opinions and to read publications, books and authors I wouldn’t probably have read otherwise.

Posted by: nelson ascher at August 5, 2004 06:06 AM Permalink

Even so, when I wrote my obituary of Edward Said last year, some two hundred Brazilian intellectuals, some of the most famous and influential among them, for instance, Brazil’s most important literary critics, many poets, writers, novelists, pop musicians, painters, theatre and TV people, ex-government ministers, several famous journalists (a couple of which wrote for or worked in the paper I work for), personal friends and even my own publisher, signed a violent letter condemning me, stating that I had written a cowardly article that didn’t deserve to be answered but only repudiated etc. The letter in short asked for my head (TS Eliot: “I saw my head upon a platter and, in short, I was afraid”) and not a few of its signers put pressure privately on my paper to fire me. I have to say that my paper stood by me in the most dignified way and I’m deeply grateful for that (my paper is the main liberal one here, Brazil’s NYT). Nevertheless, the letter was the most important joint manifestation of Brazilian intellectual in the last half century or so and it was extensively covered by other publications as well. Had I been in Brazil, I would have felt isolated and crushed by it. Being far away helped me to survive psychologically the first and worst weeks of the affair.

Posted by: nelson ascher at August 5, 2004 06:06 AM Permalink

Finally, though I wasn’t expecting something like 911, the Durban hate-fest which had taken place only a little earlier left me deeply disturbed and depressed. Besides, as I had neither space nor real conditions to test and discuss my ideas daily in the newspaper, blogging helped me a lot. It has been rather like going to a shrink and the fact of trying to express myself in a language other than my own was also helpful in some ways I don’t know exactly how to explain. Perhaps writing for a public about which I know much less than about the Brazilian one gave me a kind of liberty even to commit mistakes that I wouldn’t have felt I had were I writing in Portuguese. Then, two and a half years between 911 and my return to my homeland were more or less enough for many people here to forget what was exactly they had been scandalized about. Memories are short in Brazil.

Posted by: nelson ascher at August 5, 2004 06:07 AM Permalink

The internet gave me access to a variety of sources I could only dream about as recently as in the 90s, and being in the heartland of western anti-Americanism, in France, reading daily its lying newspapers, watching daily its official manipulative media were helpful too. There’s also a huge difference between spending some weeks in Paris and actually living there for some years. Tourists tend to see only the nice sights and, from a Brazilian’s perspective, that is, from the perspective of someone who lives in a poor, corrupt third world country, European social democracy looked like paradise. My stay in Europe allowed me to see its deep structural problems or, to put it in Maggie Thatcher’s words, I could see with me own eyes why “Labour doesn’t work”. Going to French doctors I saw the failure of the local health system. Visiting French friends and acquaintances I saw that, according even to the standards of my third world country, their professional middle-class is relatively poor, powerless and resentful. Seeing people drinking, chatting and dancing every spring and summer night on the riverside seemed, at first, quite romantic. Then I understood that, if they prefer that place to restaurants, coffee-shops or night-clubs, that’s because they simply lack the money to go frequently to such places. That’s also why one sees so many middle-class people lunching in the parks: they cannot afford going every day to a bistrot or brasserie. The variety of food there is much smaller than in São Paulo. They work less than the Americans, but stand in lines longer and much more often because they have to buy food daily since in their ridiculously small apartments there’s no place for big freezers and refrigerators. And whenever one talks about such issues with them they become savagely defensive and aggressive, telling you that you are a France hater and that things are much worse in the US. There are a million such small details that one only gets after having spent a considerable time in Europe. For God’s sake, in almost three years in France I have not one been able to eat a single decent pizza.

Posted by: nelson ascher at August 5, 2004 06:08 AM Permalink

My father was a teenager in the 30s in Hungary and he told me a lot about that time and how it wasn’t so impossible to realize or to smell the catastrophe that would happen soon. George Orwell, the first author I read extensively in English in 73/74 (not 1984 or Animal Farm, but the four Penguin volumes of his collected essays, letters and journalism) confirmed each and every point of what my father said as did the Hungarian-turned-British Arthur Koestler. Then, after WW2, my father was a middle-ranking party functionary in communist Hungary. By the way, he had been a teacher of Marxism-Leninism in those days and gave me and insider’s view of the workings of that regime. And thanks to my militancy in the left from the late 70s to the early 80s I could see by myself how the leftist mind worked. That was the time o the Iranian revolution and my comrades were enthusiastic about it, saying that Iran was the capitalist world order’s “weak link”. I was enthusiastic too, but they continued to be so for much longer than I did.

A large part of my change of mind was due to being in the right place at the right time or, at least, to not being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Luck doubtlessly accounts for much in one’s life.

Posted by: nelson ascher at August 5, 2004 06:08 AM Permalink


Do you have the Said obituary piece posted somewhere in English [or perhaps French]?

He was a proffesor of mine in college and a number of us [students] took him up on some of his unfounded contentions about historical method and assesments from a cultural perspective, that is, it's, minimally, a two way street. This man was one of the least objective scholars I've had the displeasure of hearing- his methodology was wholly borrowed from Continental Literary criticism and philosophy w/o any of the universal concerns. His legacy is nearly cannonized now: he was a strident Arab Nationalist, posing as a dapper Liberal (you should have seen his collection of silk scarves/ties). He did not like, but still aided the Islamic revolution in the ME.

Posted by: Siccari Lurker at August 5, 2004 07:05 AM Permalink

I've translated it into English and posted it at Europundits on September 28, 2003. Here's the link to it: http://www.europundits.blogspot.com/2003_09_01_europundits_archive.html#106478059002565171

Posted by: nelson ascher at August 5, 2004 07:59 AM Permalink

Not terribly respectful an epitaph. All very accurate, however (though I suspect that his reputation and his legacy will live on for some time to come, so firmly entrenched are his pustulations in the minds of the ideologically deluded---willingly or otherwise---in academe). No wonder his acolytes were a bit dismayed.

Nelson, you are a dangerous man....

Posted by: Barry Meislin at August 5, 2004 09:39 AM Permalink

Thanks Nelson.

Posted by: Siccari Lurker at August 6, 2004 05:40 AM Permalink

August 05, 2004

Three different things

One of my oldest Internet discoveries, of the ones I still cherish, is David Warren. My readers know that I quote him from time to time. What they may not guess is how eagerly I await his postings, and how disappointed I am when they don’t arrive. Of those early-discovered posts, the one that has stuck in my mind, indeed, which to me is the proverbial must-read on the Islamic world is Wrestling With Islam. It is a perspective that you’re unlikely to find anywhere else, but one which to me is not unfamiliar. A word of warning: it is exceedingly long.

I have just revisited it, and I must say it has worn well. I will now take issue with a side-point of his, which by no means devalues the whole, but which to me personally is of utmost interest:

The whole story of the Old and New Covenants can be read as one continuous attempt to escape from tribalism. As the Old Testament itself progresses, through time, one follows this development of the self-understanding of the Jewish people, who are gradually transformed from a tribal to a spiritual social order. And along this path, the commandments of the Jew's God, leads them consistently away from the "tribal gods" and the "graven images" of their ancestors, towards universal principles that go beyond the tribe. They are presented explicitly as a light to the Gentiles; as example, not precept.

We Christians believe ourselves to be completing that ancient, Jewish covenant in the new covenant of Christ, to be carrying the Jewish spiritual logic forward, in an enlargement of the chosen people to include all the elect of God, all who can see the Messiah. The Gospel message is radically anti-tribal, and the apostle Paul carries this into practice in the very cosmopolitan, urban world of late Hellenism and Rome. The whole doctrine of the Virgin Birth, quite apart from the question of its historical veracity, has the practical effect of bringing Christ into the world, and taking him out again, without leaving male blood relatives.

Islam, from its beginnings in the Koran, openly embraces precisely what the Jews and the Christians have through our histories been walking away from: the very thing we left in the desert of our own antiquity. The entire social scheme expounded in Koran and Hadiths, is in its nature neo-tribal. It is not merely built upon Arab-Bedouin tribalism, but stresses genealogy and lineage, in questions that still divide Sunni from Shia today. A whole social and military order was built up on the male blood-bond, and dependent personal relationships. And as Islam spread it attached non-Arab peoples through their own existing tribal bonds, absorbing and affiliating Berber and Turco-Mongol peoples as "Malawi", or "clients" of the Arab tribes.

… We could go on at length about the contrast in the use of such keywords; it is indeed a profoundly interesting subject. But I will leave it here with the bald statement, that in their central teachings on the social questions of "how to live and what to do", Judaism and Christianity go this way, and Islam goes that. They are not "three of a kind" but rather, "two of one kind and one of another".

Judaism, Christianity and Islam are not two of one kind and one of another, but three different things. I am not nit-picking here: they are different in precisely the way that David says two are the same. All three religions are universal, in the sense that their concern is for the entire world. In this way they profoundly anti-tribal, the essence of which, through most of human history, has been unconcern for those not of the tribe. Each of the three, however, have chosen a different path to universalism. I will not argue about the paths of Christianity and Islam. To the extent that I know those religions, I think that it is true: Christianity rejects tribalism, while Islam seeks to bring everyone into its tribe. Indeed, Christianity’s rejection of tribalism is the bedrock underlying the foundations of the western world, while Islam’s tribalism is the power propelling the jihadis of east. But Judaism has taken a third way, and like all true third ways, it is not some bland or incoherent mean (which the Greeks hold to be golden) but something else entirely.

The traditional Jewish view of the world is profoundly tribal, in the old-fashioned multiethnic sense of the word. Look in the Bible: there is nobody who does not belong to a people. It is understood that every individual is part of a nation, though it may occasionally change, it doesn’t simply disappear. Ruth 1:16 – Whither thou goest, I will go; and where thou lodgest, I will lodge: thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God (El asher telkhi elekh uva’asher talini alin `amekh `ami velohayikh elohay). The post-Biblical tradition continues this worldview: neither are there peopleless individuals in the Talmud. Judaism universalizes this reality not by seeking to change it, but by giving it order. While not concerning itself overly much with the purpose of other peoples, beyond specifying seven commandments that all people must follow (which I will talk about some other time), it is quite specific as to the purpose of the Jews: to follow 613 commandments set down in the Torah, and as a more general mission: to be a “light unto the nations.” This leaves open the possibility of a perhaps similar (or different) purpose for other nations. Indeed, it is an article of faith that, “the righteous of all nations have a portion in the world to come” (sadiqey ha’umot yesh l’hem heleq l`olam haba’).

One of my profoundest moments of intercultural understanding came a few years ago in Taos Pueblo. It reminded me of the Old City of Jerusalem, where I was living at the time: a place where tourists come to gawk, but nevertheless a home, in this case to the Tiwa Indians. The natives recognized me immediately as a somebody, rather than an anybody. They were very curious, and asked a lot of questions, but for once I didn’t feel as if from another world. Their world was my world. They had their tribe, and I had mine, and though few of our traditions were remotely similar, the mere fact that we had any brought us together.

Posted by David Boxenhorn at 02:48 AM  Permalink | Comments (4)
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Wrestling With Islam was the first David Warren essay I read too (I think One hand Clapping provided the link)and remain a fan to this day.

But to my question to what you're saying, if Christianity is no tribe religion and Islam is the one tribe religion (and damnation to those outside the tribe), is Judaism the special tribe amongst otherwise equal tribes religion?

Posted by: Thomas at August 5, 2004 08:58 PM Permalink


I will give you my take on this question: The relationship of person/tribe is like child/parent. Everyone’s better off if they especially love their parents, think they’re special, take particular pride in them, and even in some way that they shouldn’t have to defend, think they’re best parents in the world. None of this gets in the way of loving other people, or their parents. In fact, I think, it supports it. (I never didn’t have parents, but now that I have children I find myself loving other people’s children all the more.)

Posted by: David Boxenhorn at August 5, 2004 09:26 PM Permalink

I, too, remember my exhilirating "discovery" of David Warren. The link to Wrestling with Islam was via Andrew Sullivan, I think about two years ago.

I found the article of supreme interest (though I still tend to subscribe to V.S. Naipaul's view of the vicious cycle that is Islamic fundamentalism, a view with which I believe Warren expressly disagreed, preferring to see, as I recall, the upsurge of Islamic fundamentalism as precisely indicating the general weakening of Islam) and his style most engaging; and since then, I too have looked forward to every one of his columns.

Regarding his conflation of Judeo-Christianity, I find that Warren is susceptible to the same simplifications of Judaism (admittedly, quite easy to do ) that many philo-semites of a religious bent (or otherwise) are prone to.

Regarding Jewish tribalism, it may be said that some, perhaps many Jews, as individuals are prone to displaying tribal tendencies (and who isn't?, really), even if the message of Prophetic Judaism is quite universal. Though, on the other hand, it may be precisely because the message is universal that so many (often young) Jews find themselves rejecting the perceived particularism of their "tribe" in favor of more internationalist, comprehensive worldviews and/or movements.

Certainly, Judaism does not, ideologically, reject the inherent value of non-Jews, declaring, on the one hand, that all humans are created in the image of God, and on the other the worthiness of all non-Jews who practice the seven Noahide laws. Moreover, tribal tendencies that Jews have had and do have, may have been simultaneously softened and hardened (in different ways) by the vast history of Jewish life, and the hardships therein, in the diaspora.

Posted by: Barry Meislin at August 8, 2004 03:58 PM Permalink

I think that one of the beautiful things about Judaism is its acceptance of human nature, its willingness to work with it, not against it, to achieve its goals. Its most fundamental question is not what to believe, but how to live. This is its universal message. One of its answers is that people should belong to nations – not just the Jewish people.

Posted by: David Boxenhorn at August 8, 2004 05:31 PM Permalink

Nelson Ascher comments

Don’t miss Nelson Ascher’s comments!

UPDATE: This is the sound of a dying worldview. From Nelson’s blog:

Continue reading "Nelson Ascher comments"

#15 Aug 05 2004, 03:02 am


Thank you for your comments. I enjoyed them, and appreciated them.

Now, if your strength doesn’t fail you, and if you are willing to share it, there is one last thing I would like to know: How was it during that time, when you “spent a month or so coming to terms with the fact that I had to change my whole worldview”? Was it distressing and confusing, like drowning and looking for a shore? Or was it more like dropping a veil, and seeing yourself for the first time, finding a self previously hidden by cultural norms (for culture imposes on us its worldview, without our knowledge or permission, whether we like it or not)?

David Boxenhorn [email] [homepage]


#16 Aug 05 2004, 04:42 am

During the first week at least, I was more than distressed and confused. I was actually dizzy and kind of sick in an almost physical way. I was scared not the least because I distrusted deeply the Bush administration and I thought it would react like the preceding one. I still their reaction was too timid, too civilized. The things around me, the city itself (Paris) seemed unreal (TS Eliot: Unreal city/ Under the brown fog of a winter dawn/ a crowd flowed over London bridge, so many/ I had not thought death had undone so many). At that time it was David Rieff (Susann Sontag's son) who gave the best formulation for the whole thing: "species fear". For some days I actually lost my fear of death, because it seemed our whole species was close to extinction. I remember when in the 70s or 80s there was a train bombing in an Italian tunnel. One of the policemen, who rescued the survivors and saw the carnage, committed suicide shortly afterwards and left a note saying something like he didn't want to live in such a world. I always admired NY and saw it not only as the capital of the civilized world, but also as the materialization of what's best in mankind much, much more than any other city I know. I felt personally aggressed. My greatest surprise was to see that in a couple of days people didn't seem surprised anymore.

nelson ascher


#17 Aug 05 2004, 04:43 am

In the following weeks I was unable to write but tried to work hard in my mind, I tried to incorporate within it the enormity of what had happened. Then, from October to December I wrote half a dozen long essays about it and the Afghan war for my paper's new website. I had read a lot about the Holocaust and talked to people who survived it, but I could never, in a way, feel the depth of hatred it implied. And suddenly I felt in my very bones how much hatred there was out there. Yes, as they say in the X-files: the truth is out there. Common people who survived the Holocaust, though very deeply wounded, were able to go on living. But many intellectuals who survived it, Paul Celan, Peter Szondi, Primo Levi, Tadeusz Borowski, killed themselves sooner or later. Let's say that it was not exactly my view of fanaticism, Islam, Europe, many of my friends, international politics and so on that changed, but rather my view of human nature. Later, surrounded by people for whom 911 became "normalized", I had to fight against the temptation of putting the whole thing aside, I had to fight against oblivion. I'm still trying to impede reason from eclipsing my physical revulsion. Forgetting that physical revulsion seems to me much more dangerous that whatever Al Qaeda can do, though I know that people who planned, perpetrated and dreamt with 911, or those who in some way approved of it are capable of things I couldn't imagine as real. There are films which I could watch because I was sure they were only fiction. Now I know they are the real reality.

nelson ascher


#18 Aug 05 2004, 04:48 am

In short: I thought I knew there were evil persons, but I had never actually believed in evil itself. Now I do.

nelson ascher


#19 Aug 05 2004, 04:58 am

Or, to put it another way: I believed in evil as an adjective, not a noun. Before 911 I considered Osama evil, he was the noun, evil was the adjective. After 911 I began to see Osama as a manifestation of evil, he became a circumstantial adjective qualifying a much more concrete noun. I know: though I'm an unbeliever, that's an almost religious or metaphysical formulation. But evil exists.It is the real root-cause.

nelson ascher

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"Think For Yourself"

Quote of the week, from Brian Tiemann:

These American kids probably have "Think For Yourself" slogans scrawled all over their schoolbooks. One day they'll learn that thinking for oneself doesn't mean simply listening to people your own age instead of to people who are older and wiser.
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Swift Boat Veterans for truth

I’ve come across quite a few links to this page today. I don’t know about you, but I just see an empty square in my browser. I looked at the source and extracted the critical link. Here it is.

Posted by David Boxenhorn at 11:05 PM  Permalink | Comments (0)
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Spain builds illegal apartheid barrier in occupied Morocco

The BBC reports:

The eight and a half kilometre double security fence which separates the enclave from Morocco, is now being fitted with razor wire, infra red cameras and heat sensors.

Ceuta and Melilla have been European territories for 500 years and Madrid insists that they will forever remain so. But with a new king on the throne, Morocco is actively seeking the return of the enclaves and Spain may have to hand them over - sooner rather than later - if the flood of migrants cannot be stopped.

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August 06, 2004

Hi, honey, it’s not me

This is one of the coolest inventions I’ve heard of, if it works:

Imagine sending a birthday song recording to a friend "sung" by you without the embarrassment of recording yourself singing. Imagine a movie in which the characters speak Hebrew, with the voices of Arnold Schwarzenegger or Robin Williams, without these superstars having learned the language.

Imagine entering an audio Net chat room where you can choose not only your own persona, but also a unique voice for that conversation. A man could use a child's voice, a woman a man's voice, and you could say whatever you wanted in your own natural voice - while on the other side your words would sound as if spoken by someone else entirely.

According to the vision of Shlomo Baruck, founder and CEO of startup VIR (Voice Imitation and Recognition), we won't have to wait long for such a reality. VIR has developed technology that enables these scenarios. And given that it recently signed agreements with several cellular content providers, we're not too far from the day when these services are widely available.

… The processing technology makes it possible to combine what one man said with another man's voice, thereby producing a perfect imitation of the person whose voice parameters are being used. Therefore, Schwarzenegger could speak perfect Hebrew, or any other language for that matter. All that's necessary is to combine all of Schwarzenegger's voice components with text spoken by someone else speaking Hebrew. The system requires only a four-second sample of Schwarzenegger's voice, which is analyzed within a few minutes. From that point on, the system could immediately combine Schwarzenegger's voice with any text.

I don’t believe that it’s “perfect” – I’m sure a careful analysis could tell them apart – but it doesn’t need to be. And the applications aren’t just cosmetic:

VIR's technology also has another application - reducing surrounding noise heard when speaking on a cellular telephone. For example, when there is background noise from a passing truck or even a car's air conditioner during a cell phone conversation, a component in the phone will recognize the sound as noise, not voice. Within three seconds, and for the rest of the call, the noise will be shut out and will not be transmitted.

Reducing noise, in general is a huge engineering problem in many applications. The problem is that it’s often difficult to distinguish signal from noise. If this technology can figure out which tones go with a particular voice, it might be able to do it.

UPDATE: It occurs to me that this will result in all kinds of mischief, as a result of impersonations, so I updated the title of this post.

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Cultural Imperialist Cola

There is soon to be a new cola in the Israeli market:

"We have a large advertising budget," says Mikdad Adris, the marketer of Mecca Cola in Israel, "and we will soon be embarking on a huge campaign in the Arab newspapers, on billboards and on Arabic radio stations."

It is the brainchild of a French-Tunisian entrepreneur who decided to exploit the hostility of many in the Arab world toward American products by providing a competing soft drink brand. The company's international marketing message is "No more drinking stupid, drink with commitment."

The goal is to prompt Muslim consumers around the world - and now in Israel - to buy Mecca Cola on a conscientious basis; instead of handing their money to an American manufacturer, they should invest their cash in an Arab manufacturer.

This inspires me to make a comparison with another recent entry in the Israeli cola market: If you drink Mecca Cola on Earth, what to you drink in Paradise? Virgin Cola. (You hope.)

Posted by David Boxenhorn at 03:19 PM  Permalink | Comments (4)
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I haven't lived in Israel since 1987 so I can't say how things are over there now. BUT, when I lived there for 2 years, the Israelis loved ANYTHING and EVERYTHING the Americans were using:Coke,Reeboks,Adidas,Carvel IceCream and even the new mall that opened when I was there was talked about as "The mall that is just like a mall in America." So will they drink their own cola or reach for a Coke?Only time will tell.

Posted by: Robin P at August 6, 2004 11:00 PM Permalink

Adidas is not American, and Mecca Cola is not Israeli. (I thought that was clear.) And, Israelis are a lot more likely to say, "just like America" to an American. I don't think they ever use that phrase to each other.

Posted by: David Boxenhorn at August 7, 2004 08:38 PM Permalink

I remember visting Jordan, and they didn't allow Coke, just Pepsi. Jews drank Coke, so Muslims refused to.

Posted by: Mike at August 7, 2004 09:07 PM Permalink

Back before Oslo and the fall of the USSR, Coke and Pepsi divided up the world: Pepsi took the USSR, the communist countries, and the Arab countries, Coke took the US-aligned countries, like Israel. In the Arab world, at that time, there was what was called the secondary boycott: boycott of countries that sold to Israel. Coca-Cola was one of them, while Pepsi participated in the Arab boycott and didn’t. There are Israelis who won’t drink Pepsi to this day for that reason.

Posted by: David Boxenhorn at August 7, 2004 09:53 PM Permalink

August 08, 2004

Going soon

Tomorrow night I go to join my family in the US. It’s about time. I have a lot to do before then, so I don’t know if I’ll get to posting. After that, I should have some Internet access, but I don’t know how much. I’m due back Aug. 27. Until then, don’t expect much.

Posted by David Boxenhorn at 02:22 PM  Permalink | Comments (0)
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Hugs and Kisses

Amritas and Sarah have posted about their beloveds. I will too:

אני לדודי ודודי לי

Ani l’dodi v’dodi li

I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine

מחר אסע אל רעיתי

Mahar esa` el ra`ayati

Tomorrow I will journey to my beloved

מחרתיים אחבקה ואנשקה

Mohrotayim ahabqah v’anashqah

In two days I will hug her and kiss her

UPDATE: Dod is masculine, so it must be my wife talking. Ra`aya is feminine, so it must be that I said that. Theoretically, you could have doda, the feminine of dod, but I’ve never seen it.

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August 09, 2004

Transformational Worldview

One of the reasons why I talk about worldview so much is very personal: my worldview is somewhat different from most of yours. It’s probably that difference which has made me sensitive to the importance of the topic. Recently, however, I have been struck by a paradox: it is precisely the purveyors of diversity that are most blind to its importance. Instead of promoting diversity in that which makes us most human: the way we think, they focus on its most trivial manifestations: songs and dance, habits of speech and dress, food. (I know, these things can be great art, and are worthy of study in their own right – but they’re not the essence of diversity, and even they suffer when stripped of their cultural context.) Skin color.

The worst offenders are those who look for root causes. It’s an odd thing; they apparently champion the diverse, yet invariably they recognize no root causes other than the ones dear to their own worldview. It’s as if underneath the funny clothes and food is one universal worldview. We’re all the same. All other worldviews are transformed into the one true worldview: their own.

Needless to say, the truth is otherwise – and much more interesting.

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Trackback from trying to grok, DIVERSITY:
Genius observation on diversity by David Boxenhorn....

Trackback from Cerberus Blog, Diversity or New Bigotry?:
David Boxenhorn has a post here that helped me better articulate my feelings on diversity. Simply put, I have a problem with much of what passes for affirmative action and diversity in this country because it counts people as things rather than individ...


In essence, it is a difference between appearance, and substance. As long as everything appears on the surface to be diverse, it must be, don't look behind the curtain.

It is kind of like Saddam holding an election in pre-war Iraq and receiving 100% of the vote. The appearance was what he thought was needed, but the subtance was utterly lacking.

Posted by: John at August 10, 2004 01:58 PM Permalink


I read Nelson Ascher’s latest post yesterday with interest. I wanted to say something about Hebrew poetry, but what I was thinking seemed ill-formed and uninteresting. I returned to Nelson's post just now, and found this anonymous comment:

Also, in Russia there has been a long tradition of musicians putting poetry to music, thus creating popular (in a true sense of the word, not "pop") songs. This is somewhat different from France, where the poets have put their poems to music themsleves - I am thinking Brassens, Brel, Moustaki etc. (correct me if I am wrong). Russian examples of this would be Vissotzki and Okudjava. This Russian tradition has spilled over to Israel, and with a vengeance: I'd say that a great majority of the popular (and even pop) songs in Israel are classic Hebrew poetry that was put to music.

Now that’s something interesting! It’s true. Poets in Israel are national figures, household words. You often hear their words on the radio, put to music. I can’t think of anything similar in the US. I don’t think it’s true, though, that they are the majority.

There are some other interesting things about Hebrew poetry. First of all, there’s the phenomenal time-depth. Israelis have access to a literary tradition going back 3500 years. Much of the Bible is poetry. Of course there’s a whole book of Psalms, but there’s a lot of poetry elsewhere too. The oldest known Hebrew inscription (most writings are known through copies) is a poem, the cohanic blessing.

יברכך ה' וישמרך
יאר ה' פניו אליך ויחונך
ישא ה' פניו אליך וישם לך שלום

Y’varekh’kha Hashem v’yishm’rekha
Ya’er Hashem panav elekha viyhuneka
Yisa’ Hashem panav elekha v’yasem l’kha shalom

May the Lord bless and guard you
May the Lord shine his countenance on you and have grace upon you
May the Lord lift up his countenance to you and grant you peace

It loses a lot in my translation, for one thing its brevity. Here’s a word for word translation:

May-he-Bless-you Lord and-guard-you
May-he-Shine Lord his-face to-you and-grace-you
May-he-Lift-up Lord his-face to-you and-put to-you peace

This regains some of the original brevity, but now you have to get past the broken English. (Actually I left out the implicit “he” in the second verb of each line.) Brevity is one of the things I like about Hebrew, as well as its ability to rearrange words in almost any order (without using cases!), the ability to play with numerous words of the same root, and its large number of onomatopoeic words of the form: XiXXeX (for example: gilgel – roll, milmel – mumble, rishresh – rustle). I also just like its sound.

We often hear about the miracle of rebirth of Hebrew as a spoken language. It was miraculous, but in a slightly different way than is usually thought. The story goes that Eliezer Ben Yehuda “almost single-handedly” created Modern Hebrew from a dead language. Without diminishing the greatness of Ben Yehuda, this is simply not true. He was the leader of a movement which included a lot of people, but more important: Hebrew was never dead. Hebrew was the literary and intellectual language of the Jewish people throughout its history. Though it was nobody’s first language from about 500 to 1882 CE, when Benzion, Eliezer Ben Yehuda’s first son, was born, an enormous number of poems were written in it as well as works of prose, intellectual and rabbinical literature, even science. In this way it resembles many of the world’s languages: Latin in Medieval times, Sanskrit throughout most of its history, and Modern Standard Arabic. The birth of European national languages in the 18th century as literary languages led, eventually, to the demise of Latin. If it were not for the birth of Israel, the same movement would have led to the demise of Hebrew too. Today, few Jews outside of Israel know Hebrew. The miracle of Modern Hebrew is that it was created by the last generation that could have done it. One more generation and it would have been too late.

UPDATE: Don’t miss the rest of Nelson’s comments.

UPDATE: The anonymous commenter is Alisa in Wonderland.

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Of course Ben-Yehuda borrowed extensively from a few thousand years of Rabbinic Hebrew as it was the lingua franca of all Jewish religious documents. A few minutes used perusing 1500 years of responsa literature would show that rabbinical scholars used it for all correspondances especially between those lands that didn't share a common language. Additionaly it is clear that learned Jews who found themselves in strange countries were able to communicate with others using Rabbinic Hebrew.

Posted by: Kin at August 25, 2004 05:00 PM Permalink

I’m gone

I’m leaving in a few hours. This is my last post before I go. I hope to be able to post from the US, but no promises. Check back every once in a while, see if I did.

I expect regular blogging to resume around August 27, but if I need the weekend to recover it will be more like August 29.

(I would say visit Amritas while I’m gone, but you know that!)

Posted by David Boxenhorn at 09:31 PM  Permalink | Comments (1)
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Have a great trip. Just read your bio...we were born in the same hospital!! Are you vacationing in Ma? How bizarre if you are cuz that's where I am!

Posted by: Robin P at August 15, 2004 12:25 AM Permalink

August 27, 2004

I’m back

I got back last night, too tired and busy to write. Blogging will be light if any before next week: I have a lot to do to get back on track. It was really nice to see the wife and kids again; they didn’t forget me (even the one-year-old). I was beginning to get guilty nightmares by the time I left to join them.

As you know, my hopes about posting while away were wildly optimistic. A busy schedule plus technological constraints made it impossible. Though I brought my laptop, I never took it out of its case, except while passing through security on the way back. I was afraid that by the time I logged on again (last night) my mailbox would be full, and my incoming emails bouncing. Luckily, though I got over 500 while gone, judging from the dates, they don’t seem to have filled my mailbox. Everything seems to be in order. (Note to anyone who sent emails while I was away: it might take a while for me to catch up.)

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Welcome back to the Blogosphere, David. Good to have you home.

Posted by: Mike at August 27, 2004 12:44 PM Permalink

Thanks, Mike.

Posted by: David Boxenhorn at August 28, 2004 07:42 PM Permalink

Down the rabbit hole

I always feel like I’ve fallen down the rabbit hole whenever I take a long plane trip. It’s just so jarring. You get on in one place, where everything seems perfectly normal, and a few hours later you get off and everything’s different. The climate, the people, the culture, language – after all these years of travel I’ve never really gotten used to it. Instead, I’ve gotten used to the feeling of weirdness at the discontinuity. After a day or so, if I’m in a familiar place, I become acclimated to the local environmental norms, so when I come home I have to go through it all over again. I kind of enjoy it.

But I haven’t been traveling much the last few years, in particular I haven’t been to the US, so I was reminded of a few things that I had forgotten. For one thing, after closely following US news virtually, I was eager to experience it first hand. What was I thinking? On TV, in the newspapers, the vast majority of “news” is: 1) Weather, 2) Human interest, 3) News about news, e.g. celebrities. Somehow I had gotten the impression that there was presidential election coming up, and that this time it was particularly exciting and portentous.

Posted by David Boxenhorn at 07:24 AM  Permalink | Comments (1)
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There's no real news anymore; it is all opinion piece and gossip. :-(

Posted by: Rachel Ann at August 27, 2004 02:25 PM Permalink

Sound of the shofar

Another thing I enjoy sometimes: jetlag. Actually, overall I hate it, but I do like the part about waking up in the predawn hours and getting to experience a time of day I rarely meet. While I was away Elul came in – the month before Rosh Hashana, the Day of Judgment (Yom Hadin). In preparation for that day, a shofar is blown every day at the end of morning prayers. I had forgotten about that. While sitting here surfing, I just heard my first shofar of the year. (Click on the link, and go to the bottom of the page to hear the sound of the shofar.)

Posted by David Boxenhorn at 08:23 AM  Permalink | Comments (1)
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I am so not ready for Rosh Hashanah this year; spiritually or physically. Do you want to come over and help me clean and cook? That would take care of one issue. ;-)

Cool shofar link.

Posted by: Rachel Ann at August 27, 2004 11:07 AM Permalink

August 29, 2004

Triconsonantal Comments

William T. Drewery has some interesting comments to my post on Hebrew Morphology (scroll down, I wish I had comment links). I have expressed doubt in the past about the theory of Semitic biconsonantal roots, but William seems to know what he’s talking about. I wonder if there are any online sources, or if he can give any examples of Chadic biconsonantal roots. I’d also be interested in “templatic morphology” in other languages.

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August 30, 2004

Socially optimal orthography in Hebrew

Amritas welcomes me back to the blogosphere with a question:

Would that description of a "socially optimal orthography" apply to Hebrew writing?

He is referring to this description, by Joel at Far Outliers:

I would suggest that a socially optimal orthography might get by with even fewer alphabetic distinctions. People could write fewer vowels and consonants than would be optimal in isolation, while relying instead on sentential, semantic, or social context to reduce ambiguity. But this approach would make linguists feel rather less useful.

Well this is a pretty interesting way to get back to posting! (I wanted to write something about the insights coming from my most recent culture clash in the US. But that can wait.) In order to answer the question I had to figure out what a “socially optimal orthography” is. It took me quite a long time, starting with Joel’s post, and following some of his links. Eventually I decided on the following: a socially optimal orthography is:

1. Easy to learn
2. Easy to read
3. Easy to write

The last two points can be grouped together as: easy to use. Now, any software engineer with some experience, who as written software for human beings (as opposed to software that interacts only with machines) should know that ease of learning and ease of use are two completely different things. But in the end, ease of learning usually beats ease of use. That’s why mouse-driven editors eventually replaced keyboard-driven editors even though nothing beats a good keyboard editor (like VI) for ease of use – once you’ve learned it. In general I would put it this way: if the feature is critical to a professional, go for ease of use; but if it is either not critical or not for a professional, go for ease of learning.

So, the first question is: are written language users professionals? We certainly use reading and writing a lot. On the other hand, it could be argued that learning to read and write is more important than ease of use – if we don’t do that, we can’t do anything. Joel makes his comment with respect to Marshallese, in which consonants come in three forms: palatalized (raising the front of the tongue), velarized (raising the back of the tongue), and rounded (rounding the lips), with consequent fronting, backing, or rounding of the neighboring vowels. The question he raises is: should the orthography be phonemic, containing three forms of every consonant and four vowels, or should the vowels be written phonetically (indicating absolute sound) not phonemically (indicating language-meaningful units of sound) with one form of every consonant?

This question is doubly interesting to me because it parallels an observation I’ve made myself with respect to Hebrew and Russian. Hebrew, like Marshallese, has phonemic velarization, and Russian, also like Marshallese, has phonemic palatization. But Hebrew (like Arabic) indicates velarization in the consonants, while Russian indicates palatization in the vowels. In both cases the solutions are appropriate, in my opinion. Hebrew and Arabic, of course don’t fully indicate vowels, so indicating velarization in the vowels is inapplicable. However, imagining that they did, it would obscure the root-and-pattern morphology of the language to do so, making it both harder to learn and harder to use. Russian, however, doesn’t have this type of morphology, but it has 21 consonants and 5 vowels (before indicating palatization) – indicating palatization in the vowels adds only 5 new letters, while doing so in the consonants would add 21. (Actually it would be somewhat less, not all consonants can be palatalized.)

Getting back to Amritas’s question: Is Hebrew orthography socially optimal? Fifty years ago there were all kinds of proposals for orthographic reform, including latinization, none of which were taken seriously by the public. The simple fact was that everybody already knew the traditional system, so any reform violated point #1. In any case, I would certainly say that point #1 is fully covered by the traditional system: fully pointed Hebrew is very easy to learn. I know many people who have tried to teach their children to read simultaneously in Hebrew and English, and Hebrew wins hands down. Though Modern Hebrew has merged the pronunciation of many consonants and vowels, it remains the case that a fully pointed Hebrew word can be pronounced only one way.

Regarding reading and writing, I have more difficulty answering. Ease of writing is clearly impacted by technology: the answer is different if you are writing by hand, using a typewriter, or using a computer. It so happens that Modern Hebrew writing became standardized during the typewriter age, that is: after the typewriter became popular, but before the computer was invented. Typewriter technology strongly favors discreet characters written in a single line, making it difficult, if not impossible, to type pointed Hebrew. (It was also inappropriate for written Chinese, Japanese, and Arabic. Probably Devanagari too.) Thus, the standard written form of the language uses no pointing whatsoever. I have wondered if Hebrew writing were standardized today, if at least some points would be written – computers have no trouble with pointing.

In any case, writing is no problem. Hebrew has 22 letters, 5 of them have final forms, and is no trouble to write or type. The big question is reading unpointed Hebrew. This is much less problematic than you might think, as I have discussed before:

The real reason that the system works is that only two things are needed to uniquely identify a Hebrew word: root and pattern. You can always identify a word’s root because roots consist of consonants alone. And it turns out that the degree to which vowels are indicated is enough to disambiguate almost all patterns – the little ambiguity that remains can easily be determined by context, much the way English speakers [not readers] disambiguate the words to, too, and two.

However, “optimal” is a pretty high standard, and I’m not so sure about that – but I do know it works.

UPDATE: Joel just posted again on socially optimal orthography – this time regarding Yapese.

Posted by David Boxenhorn at 02:35 AM  Permalink | Comments (1)
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Thanks, David, for a very interesting examination of similar questions in much less obscure languages. I wondered whether "socially optimal" was the right term to use. I was going to go with "socially adequate" but that sets the standard a bit too low!

Posted by: Joel at August 30, 2004 08:06 AM Permalink

Marshallese Orthography

You may think I have a lot of chutzpah (huspa) to propose an orthography for Marshallese, knowing nothing of the language, but my love of systems, and the aforementioned problem makes it a fun challenge for me.

The following are my orthographic goals, chosen with the idea of creating a socially optimal orthography.

1. It should use the standard English (Latin+) alphabet – the absence of diacritics makes it easy to write using any technology
2. The values of the letters should approximate their pronunciation in well-known languages – leveraging existing knowledge
3. The overall system should be transparent – making it easy to explain and learn

Source: A Brief Introduction to Marshallese Phonology (via Far Outliers).

My orthography for Marshallese:
Consonants: p, t, k, m, n, g, l, r
Semivowels: w, i, y
Vowels: a, e, o, u


1. Consonantal rounding is marked by the letter: w. 
2. Consonantal palatization is marked by the letter: i. 
3. In syllable-initial position the w, i, follows the consonant, in syllable-final position it precedes it.

Consonants and semivowels:

    Labial Dental Velar
Stops Palatalized pi, ip ti, it  
Velarized p t k
Rounded     kw, wk
Nasals Palatalized mi, im ni, in  
Velarized m n g
Rounded   nw, wn gw, wg
Liquids Palatalized
 li, il 
 l r
 lw, wl rw, wr
Semivowels Palatalized   i  
Velarized     y
Rounded w    


high u
low a

(I have a suspicion that not all consonants appear in syllable-final position. If so, some of the digraphs in the chart would not be necessary.)

UPDATE: Of course, if an adequate system is already in use, that would most likely trump any, supposedly better, new system. As we say in the software business: standard is better than better.

Posted by David Boxenhorn at 02:46 PM  Permalink | Comments (0)
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Phonetically vs socially optimal orthographies

Amritas makes an interesting point:

'Suboptimally' phonetic orthographies in which not all sound distinctions are indicated are fine as long as (a) there are speakers who already know those distinctions and (b) context can resolve ambiguities. They are not fine for learners who don't already know the words and who need 'optimally' phonetic orthographic training wheels until they can read without everything spelled out for their benefit.

Unpointed Hebrew is socially optimal in this sense. (Fully pointed Hebrew is phonetically optimal, though accent – which is phonemic – isn’t usually indicated even when pointed, except when writing the Bible.) Although y and v can be added to indicate i, o, and u, they are usually added only when necessary to differentiate between patterns.

Posted by David Boxenhorn at 04:38 PM  Permalink | Comments (0)
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Kfir Alfia

Scanning Instapundit, I saw this picture and immediately said to myself, “that looks like an Israeli” – then I looked at the name: Kfir Alfia, an Israeli name (Kfir means lion). I wonder what his story is? I looked for his bio, but couldn’t find it.

Part of the appeal of the left up until now has been, "Look, forget ideology, we’re cool. We’re here to have fun." That really struck a chord with a younger generation. I think that's changing, and I think we’re part of evidence.

I must say, the style strikes me as typically Israeli, but the ideas are pure American.

More here and here.

UPDATE: Seems like he’s everywhere.

Posted by David Boxenhorn at 11:56 PM  Permalink | Comments (0)
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August 31, 2004


You might remember jinnderella, I certainly do! She earned my eternal favor by publicly praising my blog on LGF. Well, while I was away, she started her own blog: Hot Needle of Inquiry! Now I can be her fan too.


A lot of time is spent in the blogverse aguing about the Nature of Islam. Islam is alternately a religion, an addin ('way of life'), a system, a world-view. It is immutable, it is changing all the time, it can never change, it will change. I guess I thought that the addin was the best model, until I got involved with Evolutionary Games Theory (EGT) as a side-effect of one of my interminable and unresolveable arguments about Artificial Intelligence with Zombie.

According to Evolution and the Theory of Games (John Maynard Smith), an Evolutionary Stable Strategy (ESS) is a strategy such that, if all the members of a population adopt it, no mutant strategy can invade. Consider that Islam had 1400 years to evolve a stable strategy set. The selective advantage that gives Islam such an edge, is the "uncreated, revealed Qu'ran", which enforces the uniform adoption of the strategy set.

This sounds like Judaism too. Needless to say, Judaism’s ESS is somewhat different from Islam’s.

Go visit her, now!

UPDATE: I just realized that the name of jinnderella’s blog is a reference to the Gom Jabbar (scroll down). I too am a fan of Dune, an account of a fictional ESS.

Posted by David Boxenhorn at 12:55 PM  Permalink | Comments (3)
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Trackback from Blog D'Elisson, TODAY’S LANGUAGE LESSON:
comes courtesy of David Boxenhorn of Rishon Rishon, who points out that “blog” makes an excellent verb in Hebrew...


"Hot Needle of Inquiry" sounds like it should be a Gom Jabbar/Dune reference, but it isn't.

The Gom Jabbar was a poison-tipped needle used in the Bene Gesserit death-alternative trial. The Hot Needle of Inquiry is the name of a spaceship in Larry Niven's novel Ringworld. The spaceship is the creation of a species of intelligent, spacefaring, cat-like carnivores, just the kind of critters that would use a hot needle to extract information from a prisoner.

Jinnderella titles another of her posts "The Art of Kanly" - now that is a Dune reference for sure.

Nice bloggim (yours and hers) - todah rabah fer th' referral!

Posted by: Steve at August 31, 2004 10:26 PM Permalink

I stand corrected. I did read Ringworld once, and I enjoyed it a lot, but it was more than half a lifetime ago. I guess it was the other Dune references that led me down the garden path.

Posted by: David Boxenhorn at August 31, 2004 10:40 PM Permalink

Oh, and thanks for the compliment. Did you ever notice what a nice Hebrew word blog would make?

Balagti – I blogged
Balagta – you blogged (m)
Balagt – you blogged (f)
Balag – he blogged
Balga – she blogged
Balagnu – we blogged
B’lagtem – you blogged (m pl)
B’lgaten – you blogged (f pl)
Balgu – they blogged

Evlog – I will blog
Tivlog – you will blog (m)
Tivl’gi – you will blog (f)
Yivlog – he will blog
Tivlog – she will blog
Nivlog – we will blog
Tivl’gu – you will blog (pl)
Yivl’gu – they will blog

Boleg, boleget, bolgim, bolgot – participles

Livlog – infinitive

Bliga – verbal noun

Blog! – blog! (command)

Posted by: David Boxenhorn at August 31, 2004 11:24 PM Permalink

Terrorist Attack in Beersheva

There has just been a terrible attack in Beersheva (B’er Sheva`), involving two busses. They are reporting on the radio at least 15 wounded – these numbers are always underreported at first. I hope Benjamin Kerstein is okay. Beersheva is a small city.

UPDATE: Benjamin is okay, and reporting. The word at the top of his post: pigua`, is an interesting one. The root (p-g-`) is found in the words paga` (v. wound, hurt) and pagia` (vulnerable). It looks like the verbal noun of pigea`, but no such verb exists. It is usually translated as: attack, but there is another word for attack: hatqafa. It actually means something like: an action in which people are wounded, or which is intended to wound people. You wouldn’t use it for a strategic military attack if the goal is not specifically to wound people, e.g. D-Day is an hatqafa, not a pigua`.

UPDATE: Benjamin has a first-hand report. A few months back, I was at the site of a bombing. Though in my case it was several hours later, I too remember most the eerie silence in what is normally a noisy city.

Posted by David Boxenhorn at 02:19 PM  Permalink | Comments (1)
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Thanks for the concern.

Posted by: benjamin at August 31, 2004 05:13 PM Permalink