The English word large has been absorbed into Hebrew, but in Hebrew, large is not a physical measure. It’s a measure of character, and describes an aspect of the Israeli character. “Tihiyeh large,” Israelis exhort each other: “Be generous, expansive, grand.”
This fall, guest editors have helped to shape Forward Forum by commissioning opinion pieces. The eighth and final of the group is Judith Shulevitz, a cultural critic and magazine editor who helped to start both Slate and Lingua Franca, which won a National Magazine Award for General Excellence under her co-editorship. She has been a regular columnist for Slate and the New York Times Book Review, and is now a contributing editor at The New Republic. Her book, “The Sabbath World: Glimpses of a Different Order of Time,” was published by Random House this year.
Hamatzav means “the situation,” and can refer to any situation — the economic situation, the weather situation, your medical situation. However, within certain groups, at certain times, the expression came to refer to the Israeli political situation, and specifically to the Israeli-Arab situation.*
Israelis are an impatient people. They speak dugri (“directly,” an import from Arabic). They get to the point. Haval (guttural, as in Hanukkah) means “too bad.” Al hazman means “about the time.” Haval al hazman: It’s a waste of time.
‘Sa l’shalom,” said the policeman who had been about to give me a ticket for a traffic violation. (In the end he didn’t, because he discovered that he and my eldest daughter had been in the same class in elementary school, but that’s another story.) Translated freely, this meant, “You can go.”
Nobody likes to be a sucker, but call an Israeli man a freier and you insult him to the core. Not only should he have gotten a better deal, you imply, but he has betrayed the cardinal rules of Israeli masculinity: don’t play by the rules and never let someone outsmart you. Being a freier in Israel is like being a coward in Sparta.
When used with the definite article ha, medina, meaning state, may express anger (“The state threw us to the dogs,” say the newly unemployed); disappointment (“this is not the state we dreamed of!”); wonder (“what a state! An extraordinary state!” sings the popular entertainer Eli Luzon); even love. This range of strong emotions is a little odd when you consider the formal meaning of the word. Medina derives from the Semitic root “din,” which means rule, law or verdict. According to the etymologist Ernest Klein, a “medina” is “a district of jurisdiction.”
In 1911, when the 11th edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica was published, the entry titled “The Hebrew Language” stated: “The dream of some Zionists that Hebrew — a would-be Hebrew, that is to say — will again become a living, popular language in Palestine, has still less prospect of realization than their vision of a restored Jewish empire in the holy land.” But reality doesn’t always obey the rules of realism, and 100 years later, Hebrew — the spoken language of about six million Israeli Jews — is developing at a dizzying pace.