‘Livni mitkasha lihyot sah.bakit,” said a headline in a Hebrew paper the other day. The subject of the headline was Israel’s foreign minister, Tzipi Livni, now running in a primary contest to replace Ehud Olmert as head of Kadima, the ruling party in the country’s parliamentary coalition. Livni, who is known for her polite but somewhat standoffish personality, had been speaking to a rally of Kadima supporters in an Arab village and had embarrassed the supporters by asking a group of children distributing sweets to front-row dignitaries to sit down because they were causing a distraction. In Arab society, she later was told, children giving out candies are a routine part of such gatherings, so the rudeness was not theirs but hers.
But to get back to our headline. Those of you who have studied some Hebrew probably would have no trouble with the first three words: “Livni has difficulty being ____.” But what is sah.bakit? That’s an Israeli slang word that you’re not likely to have learned in a Hebrew class in America, and it’s not so easy to translate.
“A regular fellow?’ “Buddy-buddy?” “Palsy-walsy?” None of these is quite on target. The adjective sah.baki (SAKh.-bah-kee; the feminine form ends with a –t) comes from Arabic sah.bak, which is composed of sah.ib, “friend,” and the second-person singular possessive suffix –ak, and means “your friend.” In Palestinian Arabic, which (second only to English) has influenced contemporary Israeli slang enormously, sah.bak is used the same way as “your friend” would be in any language. But sah.bak also can refer to a friendly or sociable person, and when a Palestinian says just “sah.bak” to you, it is his way of telling you that you can consider him your friend. I myself first encountered this usage years ago, when I had an argument with a Palestinian vendor in a marketplace. When we had calmed down, the vendor put out his hand to shake mine, and said, “Sah.bak?” — “Are we friends again?”
To be sah.bak or sah.baki in Hebrew is not to be friendly in any deep sense, but to be highly sociable in a jovially backslapping, arm-around-the-shoulder kind of way. To call someone this is not necessarily complimentary, although it is not necessarily derogatory, either. It implies a certain superficiality, which may or may not be unpleasant according to the circumstances. And it yields the verb le’histah.bek, to cultivate superficial relationships, whether for their own sake or for one’s social or political advancement. Ms. Livni’s disinclination le’histah.bek on the campaign trail has been said to be an obstacle to her, although it also has earned her a measure of grudging admiration.
It is interesting to compare sah.bak with an older Israeli slang word that is heard much less today than it once was: h.evraman (KHEV-rah-mahn); h.evraman is a case of Hebrew-to-Yiddish and Yiddish-back-to-Hebrew borrowing, the original Yiddish word being formed from Hebrew hevrah, meaning “gang,” “social group” or “social gathering,” plus Yiddish man, “man” or “person.” A khevreman in 19th- and early 20th-century Yiddish was a term of disapprobation, referring to a member of a criminal gang. Yet the word’s meaning shifted, so by the time of the Holocaust it had come to mean a “regular guy,” someone active in and accepted by his social circle.
But it was only in Israel, and in the pre-state Yishuv of Palestine, that h.evraman became a term of high praise and the person it described a social ideal. A h.evraman in the Israeli culture of the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s was the most admired of types, a social dynamo and the life of every party, a high-spirited yet always dependable and responsible person who never let down his friends and could be counted on in a pinch. The h.evraman might not be the brainiest intellectual or most commanding personality, but he was considered a greater asset than either and was unfailingly popular with his peers.
To be sah.bak and to be a h.evraman thus have certain things in common. Both have highly developed social skills and antennae, and neither likes being alone. Yet there is also a difference between them. The h.evraman is group oriented and best functions as part of a group; you can’t really be a h.evraman with just one other person. The sah.bak, on the other hand, is adept in one-on-one relationships and cultivates them.
And this is why, although one still hears the term used, the h.evraman is today a slightly archaic figure. Israeli culture has changed: It is much less communal and far more individualistic than it used to be. The sah.bak is better suited to the times, politically as well as in other ways. You get further in politics today by slapping backs than by giving fiery speeches. Tzipi Livni is reputedly being given lessons in sah.bakiyya, which is the art of being sah.bak. We shall see. Questions for Philologos can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.