“Sweet when I am Bitter” – a New Year’s celebration of Hebrew

September 13, 2015 by

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I’ll admit that there has been little leading up to Rosh Hashana that leaves me looking forward to the New Year. The extremities of Climate Change, the extremities of Middle Eastern conflicts, the extremities of poverty, refugees, and public discourse.

And then, galloping in on its White Horse, Israeli popular culture comes to lift me up once more. I have been translating Israeli popular music for over a decade now, but today I celebrate the fact that Israel’s Song of the Year is untranslatable.

The song “Sweet when I am Bitter” is such a delightful reggae swing through the cutest of Hebrew word play, that it is no wonder it won the listeners’ award on top radio station Galgalatz.

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Throughout the song, Eliad Nachum strings together a hidden list of top music stars, like a musical word puzzle of Israeli popular culture. The chorus in particular is a delight.

A direct English translation would have you understand that Eliad is praising his girlfriend while referring to a friend of theirs called Bob: “You create sweetness like Bob, when I am bitter.” But the word “bitter” in Hebrew is “Mar”, and “Li” indicates the bitterness is mine. In this way we can hear that the Hebrew is hiding the iconic reggae star: “BOB, ksheMARLEY”

As well as playing with pop stars, Eliad touches on the bible, too. “Just tell me, and I’ll run into the (lions’) den” he proclaims. But while referencing the Book of Daniel, he also gently plants a tribute to beloved performer Gidi Gov: “Rak taGIDI ve’arutz el toch haGOV”

The whole song pays tribute to HaDag Nachash, Eyal Golan, Dudu Tasa, Nomi Shemer, and many more.

I could have done one of Makom’s standard video translations, but more would have been lost than captured.

I think this is cause for celebration.

Hebrew culture has now reached such a thickness that even the hit parade is too dense to be easily translated.

Shana Tova!

500 words on Yom Ha’atzmaut – When all the questions marks turn to exclamation marks


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Cross-posted with ejewishphilanthropy

Yom Ha’atzmaut? Again? This year of all years?

Whenever I approach Yom Ha’atzmaut with a sinking feeling, I always remember the point made by Professor Yosef Klausner:

“For three hundred and sixty-four days of the year we are busy with criticism. We criticize the nation’s priorities, and the nation’s leaders. We count the many mistakes that our leaders and ministers make… But a nation must have one day in a year that is a real celebration. On that single solitary day, all the prosecutions must cease, and the harsh criticism must stop…”

Klausner wrote these words back in 1953, when the State of Israel was only 5 years old!

So what is it that we should be celebrating on this one day?

Ideally Yom Ha’atzmaut should mark one of the most significant events in Jewish history. It is an event packed with meaning for Jews throughout the world, not just in Israel.

But what is the nature of that “meaning”?

We can’t even come up with a shared narrative.

When does the Israel story begin? 1948? The Dreyfuss Trial? The destruction of the Second Temple? Abraham’s journey?

Would you say that the Holocaust should be part of our Yom Ha’atzmaut narrative? If you have an unequivocal answer to that question, I assure you that you have a friend who would answer the opposite.

At Makom we would say that the meaning of Yom Ha’atzmaut can be encapsulated not through a narrative, but through the Four Hatikvah Questions.TBAPFIOL

For the first time in two thousand years, ever since May 14th, 1948, we have been able to answer all Four Hatikvah Questions with a resounding “Yes!”

To Be? – Yes!

Peoplehood? – Yes!

Free? – Yes!

In Our Land? – Check!

In this brilliant illustration, Shay Charka marks the nine-day roller-coaster between Yom HaShoah, and Yom Ha’atzmaut. Just imagine what answers we might have reached to the Four Hatikvah Questions in 1945…

The Nine Days!

Do we now share questions about threats to our ongoing existence? Certainly. The desperate arguments will wait for one day.

Do we disagree about the ways in which our heritage, solidarity, and values are expressed? Sure. Let’s put the disagreements on temporary hold.

Are we concerned about Israel’s democratic structures and discourse?

Do we agree on the borders of our Land? On relations with the Palestinians, who say it is their Land too?

All crucial questions. We’ll talk about them on the other 364 days.

Imagine a Yom Ha’atzmaut celebration that chose to focus on these four blessings. The songs, the dances, the speeches, the parties, the performances, that celebrate the four-fold answer of “yes”.

Yom Ha’atzmaut is the day on which the Four Hatikvah Questions turn into exclamation marks.

Promises, Promises – the pre-election commitments so far

February 6, 2015 by

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This is the way the elections promises line up so far. With over a month to go, it is interesting to see where Israeli politicians are putting their mouths, so to speak.

As we know, election campaigns are generally focused on persuading the floating voter, and so parties often talk less to their home crowd and more aim to impress newcomers. As such, this laudable open source initiative is revealing. The chart above is taken from the ongoing google sheet, to which the public is invited to report politicians’ promises.

In terms of our 4HQ approach, we can see that the vast majority of the promises live within the People/Free areas. 35.5% of promises address economic welfare issues, 13% talk about lowering the costs of housing, and another 2.4 % talk of medical care. Add to that the face that nearly two-fifths of the coalition demands (which make up 20.2% of all promises) also address socio-economic issues, this means that well over half of all election promises made are on what in Israel are known as “chevrati” – socio-economic issues.

Only 6% of promises would fit into the security/peace deals category, compared with 11% of promises addressing corruption and good government. About a third of promised legislation addresses Jewish People issues, such as conversion, the rabbinate, and Haredi conscription to the army – round about 6% of all promises.

So according to promises so far, here is our 4HQ chart of election promises!

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Let’s talk about Zionism – through a 4HQ filter…

January 28, 2015 by

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The Labor/Tnuah combo has chosen to call itself the Zionist Camp.

Contrary to popular belief, this is not a boutique clothes shop in Tel Aviv, but a political party with serious intentions. Their first introduction to the Israeli public is in this short video that begins with Herzog challenging: “Zionism? Let’s talk about Zionism!”

Soon thereafter this very video was “altered” by the opponents of the Zionist Camp.

We present both videos for you, parsing them through the filter of 4HQ, the Four Hatikvah Questions –


I must emphasize before beginning that these are my personal readings of the videos, hence this blog is under my name not Makom in general. We’ll all be having a go at this game in the coming few weeks – and you are also invited to add your reading to the comments below!

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The Light of Israeli women poets – Candle #8 – Shlomit Naim-Naor

December 24, 2014 by

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This is one of my poems. Dedicated to my partner, who celebrates his birthday this week. We are celebrating five years of acquaintance, and four years since he told me he loved me.

The eighth candle of Hanukkah. A candle of rain outside, of joy in the home, of faith in general, and of faith in love in particular.

Love is Hard Work

If you see one Rainbow
The second rainbow will show immediately
You said you love me

And if the second rainbow will show
so will the third
You`ll keep loving me
Even if I am fired.

It was raining in Tel Aviv
And Jerusalem kept dry
The price of the petrol just rose

But rainbows are for free.
And love is hard work.

וְאִם קֶשֶׁת אַחַת תּוֹפִיעַ

מִיַּד תַּעֲלֶה הַשְּׁנִיָּה

וְאָמַרְתָּ שֶׁאַתָּה אוֹהֵב אוֹתִי

וְאֵם  תעלהַ הַשְּׁנִיָּה תּוֹפִיעַ גַּם


וְגַם אִם יְפַטְּרוּ אוֹתִי

עֲדַיִן תֹּאהַב אוֹתִי

וּבְתֵל אָבִיב יָרַד גֶּשֶׁם

וִירוּשָׁלַיִם יְבֵשָׁה

וּמְחִירֵי הַדֶּלֶק עָלוּ

אֲבָל קֶשֶׁת זֶה בְּחִנָּם

וְאַהֲבָה זֶה

הַרְבֵּה עֲבוֹדָה


Eight candles of hope – Candle #8 – A welcome disinvitation

December 24, 2014 by

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One of the more painful weeks in Israel began with the horrific murder in the Har Nof synagogue of three people at morning prayer. It concluded with the response-song by Amir Benayoun.

Benayoun is a talented and powerful singer – religious, Mizrachi, tortured and original. He is so respected that the new President of Israel invited him to perform at the President’s residence for an event commemorating Jews from Arab Lands.


Straight after it was discovered that one of the Har Nof murderers had worked for years at the grocery store just round the corner from the synagogue, Amir Benayoun recorded a song. Called Ahmed, it is seemingly “sung by” an Arab called Ahmed. The chorus goes:

It’s true I’m just ungrateful scum
It’s true but I’m not to blame –
I didn’t grow up with any love
It’s true that the moment will come
when you turn your back on me
and then
And I’ll stick a sharpened axe in it.

It was clearly a cry of pain, with no small amount of deep confusion (the musical style of Benayoun’s singing is so Arab!). It was also an ugly piece of racism. Benayoun’s defence that the song was about one particular person and not all Arabs simply didn’t hold water.

Israel’s President, right-wing Reuven Rivlin, did not hesitate. He immediately cancelled Benayoun’s participation in the festival at the President’s residence. And stated very clearly that it was because of the song.

I light my final candle of hope for my new President, who is committed to bringing light into the darkness.

Eight candles of hope – Candle #7 – Connected

December 24, 2014 by

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It’s reality TV. But not like you’ve known it.

To be honest, I don’t know – perhaps the ingenious format of “Connected” is a well-known format outside of Israel, too – but its incarnation in Israel is fantastic.

Each season a group of unconnected interesting, fascinating, sometimes famous people, are given a camera or two for a month or so. They film themselves all the time, interacting with the camera as they would to a very personal video diary, or a running stream of consciousness.

None of them meet – they are in different worlds. One might be a stand-up comedian, another a writer, another the unsuccessful daughter of a successful TV presenter – the connections are made in the editing room. Each episode is themed, and the editor jumps us from character to character, exploring the theme.

It’s not cheap. It’s not sensationalist. lior daddeadIt doesn’t (seem to) create monsters to hate, or freaks to ridicule. On the contrary. We see the humanity, the tenderness, the hilarious, and the challenges of real life.

This season I’m in love with the sensitive, unstable, vulnerable and gifted Lior Dayan, son of actor and director Asi Dayan (whose death we experience through the eyes of Lior in one episode – see photo), and grandson of Moshe Dayan. I loved the bit when he’s playing with his baby son who pokes him in the eye, “Don’t do that. We have a thing in the family about eyes,” says his father patiently.

Seventh season of Connected: Seventh candle.

Eight candles of hope – Candle #6 – Gett, the trial of Viviane Amsalem

December 23, 2014 by

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My wife and I went to see the film “Gett” the other week.

It is a wonderfully acted, expertly scripted, infuriating film about a woman whose husband will not grant her a divorce. Since Israel’s divorce courts are orthodox religious courts, the law is constricted by the idiosyncrasies of orthodox divorce law.

The entire film takes place in the cramped rooms of the rabbinic courts of Haifa, and features some of this generation’s greatest mizrachi Israeli actors. The jokes are abundant, as are the frustrations.

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We saw the film in a cinema right near Haifa. It was a packed house. As the movie progressed, after Viviane’s request for a divorce had once again been postponed, the sound of people moving uncomfortably in their seats changed. The tutting and oofing started up. Towards the end we were all actually shouting at the screen, united in our exasperation at an untenable situation. The villain had won. And the villain was the legal system itself.

As I walked out of the Cineplex, I was full of energy. “There is no way,” I thought to myself, “there is no way that this film will not change this country’s attitude to divorce and agunot. It is too powerful. Too persuasive.” Indeed it turns out that February’s annual convention of Beth Din rabbis is going to screen the film for all the dayanim to watch.

I light my 6th candle in honor of powerful art that insists on change for the good.

Eight Candles of Hope – Candle #4 – The Jews are coming!

December 21, 2014 by

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One day an entire curriculum of the History of the Jewish People will be built around the new comedy sketch show, The Jews are Coming. They hit it all – Bible, Talmud, Inquisition, Dreyfus, Ben Gurion, Eichmann, and even Yigal Amir. Although they do have a little difficulty finding ways to end the sketches, they normally hit winners throughout.

This sketch plays on the Purim story, and translates the Hebrew “zonah” in a very gentle fashion. “Whore” would be a more accurate rendition. As well as offering humorous, feminist critique of the ancient text, it also makes a lovely sideways reference to the way in which girls’ Purim costumes get more and more sexual every year…

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The jokes do not only fly at surface level. There is even a recurring game show involving Rashi and Cassuto, two quarrelsome Bible scholars, shooting barbs at each other in the studio as they did, some thousand years apart, in the biblical literature.

My fourth candle is dedicated to the light of Israeli comedy, drenched in history and Jewish text.

Eight Candles of Hope – Candle #3 – Shemi Zarchin and the Mizrachi experience

December 19, 2014 by

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My third candle was for Shemi Zarchin. He is a screenwriter, film director and novelist who creates beautiful rich and complex women characters in particular, and in particular hits on the Mizrachi experience in Israel. I still think that Aviva My Love was one of Israel’s best films – exploring creativity and exploitation, as well as the working-class Mizrachi world of Tiberias. The two sisters with their “we don’t talk about that” catch-phrases of intimacy and love are a delight, and Asi Cohen puts in one of the great performances of Israeli film.

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Zarchin’s novel, “Some Day”, came out recently in English translation. I don’t know how it translates, but I imagine that the magical realist plot and characters will storm past any awkwardness of language. It is a story of overflowing passion, extreme both morally and emotionally, and one of the best books I’ve read.

So the candle I lit last night, the third of this festival, was lit for the words, the people, and the life that Shemi Zarchin brings to Israel’s cultural and political discourse.

North Americans can stream Aviva my Love from here, and the book Some Day is available in English here.

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