A Condi Conundrum

By Philologos

Published November 28, 2007, issue of November 30, 2007.
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Writing last week in The New York Times, Israel correspondent Steven Erlanger remarked that preparations for the Annapolis, Md., summit have contributed a new verb to the Hebrew language: Le’kandel, “to come and go for meetings that produce few results,” coined from the first name of Condoleezza Rice.

I myself have yet to encounter le’kandel in an actual conversation, and I doubt that I will. Its use as reported by Mr. Erlanger strikes me more as a political joke than as a genuinely new slang expression. But if I ever do hear anyone in Israel say “Kindalti kol ha-shavu’a” (“I came and went all week long for a meeting that produced few results”), or “Hi mikandelet yoter midai” (“She’s coming and going for too many meetings that produce few results”), I promise to let you know.

Still, le’kandel (its initial le- is the Hebrew infinitive preposition “to,” which is attached in writing to the verb that follows it) is perfectly good Hebrew. Hebrew verbs are built from root consonants, to which can be added other consonants that indicate tenses, people, gender and other verbal aspects, as well as vowels that do the same. In this they differ from English verbs, whose vowels are generally unchanging. (True, in so-called “strong” English verbs, vowels change to mark the past tense, as when “run” becomes “ran” or “dig” becomes “dug.” But most English verbs are “weak,” and all the vowels in them are permanent.)

Another difference between English and Hebrew verbs is that the former can be of theoretically unlimited length, although, practically speaking, they are unlikely to exceed five or six syllables. A Hebrew verb is grammatically limited to four consonants at the most. (Most Hebrew verbs have two or three.) Thus, the fact that le’kandel * lacks the fifth consonant of “Condoleezza” does not come from a natural tendency to shorten long words, as would be the case in English if one coined the verb “to condy.” Rather, within the formal rules of Hebrew grammar, it is simply impossible to have a verb like *le’kandlez. And who needs the extra “z” anyhow when, by shifting around vowels and adding a consonant here and there, you can do so many things with le-kandel? For example: Yekandlu: “They will come and go for meetings that produce few results”; Kandli: “Come and go [said to a woman] for meetings that produce few results!”; Kundalnu: “We were made to come and go for meetings that produce few results”; Hitkandalti: “I ran around coming and going for meetings that produce few results,” etc. And so on and so forth.

On November 2, The Times published a piece by the same correspondent. It had an amusing Hebrew mistake in it, although in all fairness it wasn’t his own. In an article titled “A Modern Marketplace for Israel’s Ultra-Orthodox,” he interviewed the American-born proprietor, a recent emigrant to Israel, of a Haredi establishment called American Pizza, located in the Israeli town of Bet-Shemesh. Asked why he had chosen for his logo the Twin Towers of the September 11, 2001, attacks, the proprietor replied that he would have preferred the Statue of Liberty but his rabbi had counseled against it. The rabbi, Mr. Erlanger quoted this pizza maker as saying, “told me that the Statue of Liberty is a problem, spiritually speaking.” This was because whereas “liberty in Hebrew is chofesh, which implies pure freedom,” the ultra-Orthodox, this pizza maker said, “don’t have chofesh. We are servants of God.”

This would be all very well and good if only the Statue of Liberty were known in Hebrew as pesel ha-h.ofesh, as the owner of American Pizza and his rabbi seem to think it is. Alas, they’re mistaken. It’s pesel ha-h.erut, which would make American Pizza change its logo immediately.

Hebrew, like English, has two words for “freedom” or “liberty,” and they have very different connotations for ultra-Orthodox Jews. The adjective h.ofshi, from the noun h.ofesh, has the meaning in ultra-Orthodox parlance of “freethinker” and is a pejorative term for a non-observant Jew. There is a measure of support for this in rabbinic usage, in which the phrase h.ofshi min ha-mitsvot, “free from the commandments,” refers to someone not obliged or not willing to observe Jewish law. h.erut, by contrast, has a positive ambience in Jewish tradition. The holiday of Passover, for instance, is called in the prayer book z’man h.eruteynu, “the time of our freedom,” and in the Haggadah, Jews praise God for taking them mi’avdut le’h.erut, “from slavery to freedom,” and express the wish that they themselves will become b’nei-h.orin, “free men.”

In contemporary Israeli Hebrew, too, h.ofesh has more the sense of mere freedom from external restraints, h.erut more that of the freedom to be oneself. h.ofesh *and its derivative *h.ufsha can also mean vacation — that is, being temporarily excused from one’s normal obligations. h.erut, on the other hand, generally signifies something more inward and sublime. It’s not a word that American Pizza needed to feel ashamed of.

Questions for Philologos can be sent to philologos@forward.com.

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