Category Archives: Essays

The Challenge of Israeli Conscientious Objectors

By Omri Boehm

Last Wednesday, Tair Kaminer, a 19-year-old Israeli who has refused to serve in the Israeli Defense Forces, was dishonorably discharged from service due to “grave and malicious behavior.” Military judges had sentenced her to prison multiple times before. When Kaminer is finally released, on July 29th, she will have served almost six months in prison for declining to participate in the occupation of the Palestinian territories — longer than any other Israeli woman.

Kaminer’s story has attracted attention in Israel not just because of the length of her incarceration, but also because of her background. Far from neglecting her duties as an Israeli, Kaminer volunteered after High School to shnat sherut — a year of extra civil service that young citizens may undertake before engaging their lengthy military obligations. She spent her service in Sderot, a town on Israel’s border with Gaza, helping children who were traumatized by Hamas’ rockets. During this time, she reports realizing that she could not join a military that inflicts similar and worse traumas on Palestinians — and she has been going in and out of prison ever since.

Normally in such cases, the military finds a way to discharge conscientious objectors without recognizing their conscientious grounds. For example, Aiden Katri, who also refused to participate in the occupation, and who happens to be transgender, was released from prison four months ago and excused from service due to “mental incompatibility.” IDF officials have insisted that there was no connection between Katri’s discharge and her sexual preferences, but a suspicion lingers that the IDF preferred treating transsexuality as a mental disorder to incarcerating yet another opponent of the occupation. Indeed, before Katri announced her refusal to serve, she had been evaluated by the IDF’s routine mental screenings and was found sound for service. She is now appealing the grounds of her discharge, refusing to allow the military to treat her sexuality — or her conscience — as expressions of abnormality. In the unlikely event that her appeal is accepted, Katri may be sent back to prison. Of the six conscientious objectors who were imprisoned in 2016, five, including Katri, were women.

The right to conscientious objection has been officially recognized in Israel at least since the early 1990s, when the country joined the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the Knesset passed its own human rights legislation — Basic Law: Human Dignity and Freedom — that has constitutional status. Despite these legal developments, the IDF automatically releases thousands of women every year if they only declare that their religious conscience forbids them from service. One way or another, objectors such as Kaminer and Katri are being prosecuted because they specifically refuse to participate in the occupation. Their incarceration thus challenges some common assumptions in Israel about the relation between conscience and the law.

According to the military, refusing to serve due to opposition to the occupation is not moral, but political: an illegal act of civil disobedience, not of conscientious objection. This claim — endorsed by Israel’s Supreme Court when it was still presided over by the notable Justice Aharon Barak — draws on a familiar but outdated distinction between universal and selective conscientious objection. The former, which amounts to pacifism, depends on one’s private, moral refusal to partake in violence regardless of its purpose. The latter, the argument goes, aims not at preserving one’s own moral integrity but at influencing politics by breaking the law.

Whatever the merits of this argument may be, it in fact draws on a fictitious distinction. The scope of one’s objection has no bearing on the question of whether her motives are moral or political. Deep moral reasons certainly can — and arguably should — be directed against specific types of violence, not just against violence in general. Kaminer and her friends no doubt also seek to change politics, and their sitting in prison or release from service also certainly has a political significance. But as long as the reason for their refusal is their conscience’s decree against partaking in the occupation, their political agenda is beside the point. They must be excused from service, because it is impossible to force them to act on principles that contradict their conscience without gravely injuring their right to human dignity.

Justice Barak’s stance on this issue can serve as an illuminating example. In his days as President of the Supreme Court, he allowed the demolition of hundreds of houses owned by terrorists’ families. These demolitions conflicted not just with the Fourth Geneva Convention, but also with basic principles of justice: thousands of innocent civilians, who were not even charged with a crime, were used by the IDF supposedly to “deter” terrorist activity. If Justice Barak was appalled by the military’s methods, his conscience evidently did not prevent him from giving them a hand. If it had, the State of Israel would not have forced him to remain a judge. But by allowing these demolitions, Barak did not participate in the injury of Palestinians only; he also sentenced Israeli soldiers to carrying these injuries out. Unlike Barak, these soldiers are coerced by the state into service. Thus in ruling against the right to selective conscientious objection, Barak’s court undermined the right to human dignity of those whose conscience does forbid them from participating in occupation-methods such as house demotions.

Conscientious objectors find themselves on especially precarious ground in Israel, because their stance assaults the IDF’s status as “The People’s Military” — an untouchable source of legitimacy that transcends politics. Indeed, even Israeli human rights organizations, such as Peace Now and Breaking the Silence, draw heavily on their members’ military background to establish moral authority. In a conversation a few weeks ago, as she was on her way back to prison, Kaminer was careful to reject this logic. She emphasized that she admired these organizations’ work, but also that she already “knows enough”: “I do not think that I should participate in the occupation in order to later be able to ‘break the silence’ about it,” she said.

The IDF’s claim to moral authority finds reference in a well-known clause in its Code of Ethics, which dictates that “manifestly illegal” orders must be disobeyed. As every soldier learns during basic training, in extreme cases one’s own conscience overrides the commander’s authority. The powerful words of Justice Benjamin Halevi provide this doctrine its anchor: “the distinguishing mark of a ‘manifestly illegal order’ should fly like a black flag above the order given, as a warning sign saying ‘prohibited’ […] unlawfulness piercing the eye and revolting the heart, be the eye not blind nor the heart not stony and corrupt.” With these sentences in mind, it is common for Israelis to insist that the IDF is “the most moral military in the world” and dismiss conscientious objectors as anarchist political rebels.

The doctrine that allows “manifestly illegal” orders to be disobeyed may have some merit in the course of warfare, but in the present context its effect has been pernicious. For decades, the military’s day-to-day operative task has been not warfare, but serving as government, police and secret police, exercising legislative and juridical authority over millions of civilians. Under the circumstances of a military regime, it is not some grotesquely illegal order — but the imposition of the law itself — which is the main expression of criminal violence that must be contested by conscience. That’s a fact that the IDF’s Code of Ethics has successfully suppressed. Armed with the “manifestly illegal” doctrine, it has become easier to impose military laws on civilians but remains more or less immune from pangs of conscience. Objectors such as Kaminer and Katri challenge this immunity. Their personal integrity is of great value to Israeli society. One day, perhaps, the country will thank them for their service.

 

‘A Man and a Woman’ Taught Me How We Fall in Love with France

By Rob Zaretsky

Fifty years ago this summer, France was between and betwixt events of lasting import. The wounds from the Algerian War — ended just four years earlier — still bled, while the tinder to the “events of May 1968” — namely the student rebellion and worker strikes that nearly pushed Charles de Gaulle from power — was still gathering. Echoes of both events can now be heard in the explosions of terrorist bombs and chants of protesting workers and students in Paris.

Given the lasting and seismic nature of these events, the impact that same summer of what film critic Pauline Kael called the “most efficacious make-out movie of the swinging sixties” amounts to a hill of beans. And yet, with apologies to Virginia Woolf, on or about July 1966, human character changed. Or, at least, my character changed when Claude Lelouch’s Un homme et une femme opened that month in the US.

Though it was a few years later that, as a high school student, I first saw A Man and a Woman, the images and music had already buried themselves in my mind. The white-bordered poster framing a pink-hued shot of Jean-Louis Trintignant and Anouk Aimée hung in my brother’s bedroom. Their eyes are closed, which struck my barely teen self as perfectly normal. But their lips are also closed. Only recently introduced to the theory, not the practice, of French kissing, I should have thought this pose perfectly oxymoronic.

And yet, with apologies to Ludwig Wittgenstein, I suspect there are others who have, along with me, been held captive by this one picture and cannot get outside it. Dimly but deeply, I knew the image was right — as right as anything ever could be. This was France, a world of grace and gravity I wanted to be part of. It is no less right today, as is Francis Lai’s theme song I waited to hear on my transistor radio. The melody is short and sharp, while the lyrics are monosyllabic. Carried by two voices — a man and woman’s, bien sûr — it is a lazy cascade of ba-da-ba-da-da-da-da-da’s. Coasting along for less than three minutes, the song is mostly unencumbered with actual words. How could it be otherwise for lips that are closed?

In fact, the wordless song is perfect for a film also mostly unburdened with words. There are, to be sure, bits and pieces of conversation, but were they to disappear entirely the film would remain whole. The film doesn’t do much more than riff on the poster, images succeeding one another sometimes in black and white, sometimes in color. (The reason, Lelouch later revealed, was economic, not aesthetic: by the end of the filming, he was nearly broke.) A tracking shot of a Mustang race car fishtailing on a snowy road, or purring slowly along a beach; a prolonged shot of Trintignant behind the wheel of the Mustang, partly obscured by wipers sweeping away the rain, or a shot of Aimée watching her young daughter, partly obscured by her hand sweeping away her hair; a glimpse of them exchanging glimpses, or a glimpse of them exchanging kisses that are somehow both passionate and chaste.

Many of us, famously, learned how to kiss from the movies. While I should have taken better notes on that subject, the real lesson I took from A Man and a Woman was something different. I learned how we fall in love. A film carves an image in our minds, an image that shapes our responses to the world and to others. This is, with apologies to Virgil, the Dido response. Aeneas astonishes the Carthaginian queen by appearing, out of a mist, inside a temple she is building to Juno. The temple, it turns out, is version of a cinema house: carved along its walls are many scenes — what Virgil calls “mere image” — of the Trojan War. As Aeneas “feasts his eyes” on these moving pictures, he learns what Dido already knows: he’s the star in a DeMillian epic for which Dido has had a front row seat.

In short, Dido was already falling for Aeneas before they ever met. On that fateful day at the Carthage Cinémathèque, when she was in free fall, all he did was catch her, only to drop her a short time later in order to found Rome. When I first saw A Man and a Woman at the Bleeker Street Cinema in the early 70s, I was caught by an image of France. (That this happened to be the image of a woman was only natural: the personification of France, after all, is Marianne.) I was still falling a few years later when, at a youth hostel, a (French) woman caught me. She dropped me a few years later in order to move to Rome (not at the command of a Latin god, but at the invitation of an Italian biochemist.)

Since that abrupt ending, since becoming an historian of France and having a more complex understanding of the country — and, I hope, myself — than I did as an impressionable teen, I am still enthralled by my particular picture of France, but no longer captive.

Captivation is what cinema aims for, but in life, as we all know, it can be problematic. I keep returning to Aimée and Trintignant’s faces, graced by impossibly high cheekbones and alabaster skin, wreathed in cigarette smoke, even as I know that for others, the picture is different: Paris boulevards wreathed in smoke from tear gas grenades or a flaming police car. For others still, the picture is of an anniversary meal at a fine Paris restaurant, slowly wreathed in cigarette smoke from a neighboring table.

Of course, the sort of captivity I felt gazing at the poster is not exclusive to awkward American teenagers. It may well be that the images etched in Claude Lelouch’s mind as a Jewish child, hidden by his mother in movie houses to evade police dragnets in occupied Paris, shaped a film where faces, not words, express fear and doubt as well as hope and certainty. What images may have been pressed onto the imagination of the young Aimée, née Nicole Dreyfus, during the war? Given a false identity and hidden by her Jewish father in the French countryside, I now wonder how these “pictures” informed her performance as a widow traumatized by the death of her husband.

In the end, a picture can free us as well as capture us. When I recently watched A Man and a Woman for the first time since my Bleeker Street epiphany, I realized I had forgotten the film’s end. After Aimée and Trintignant are reunited at a train station, Lelouch does not give us a fade of embracing lovers. Instead, he gives us a freeze frame, catching Aimée and Trintignant between and betwixt. I stare hard at her expression, one of pain and relief, and despite the misbegotten sequel Lelouch made 20 years later, I still no more know what the future holds for her than she does. It is as open now as it was a half-century ago on Bleeker Street.

Refusing Islam in Dhaka

By Faisal Devji

Poor countries like Bangladesh, with their large labor diasporas and internationally connected or aspirational elites, tend to be far more globalized than rich ones. Given the highly visible role that foreign trade, philanthropy, and development play in their societies, such nations stand at the forefront, if not on the front line, of globalization. The brutal events at Dhaka’s Holey Artisan Bakery on the first day of July serve as an instructive illustration of this reality. The “artisanal” restaurant, with its European and Latin American chefs, its clientele of diplomats, aid workers, and NGO interns from American universities, and, indeed, the internationally educated students from affluent families who attacked them — all were global citizens. It was as if Dhaka provided an arbitrary site for their collision. There was nothing very local about any of the concerns animating the restaurant’s visitors — least of all the murderers, for whom Bangladesh itself was of no particular interest.

Of course, the globalized form of militant Islam that unleashed this savagery didn’t just touch down in Dhaka randomly. In some ways it illustrated the dark side of the humanitarian enterprises that motivated many of the Holey Artisan Bakery’s diners, with their focus on addressing injustice and inequality globally. Moreover, the jihad inspiring some half a dozen Bangladeshi youths to kill these well-meaning men and women had as its context the absence — in fact, the repudiation — of a local or national politics. For both the NGOs and terrorists, who work outside political institutions they often despise and seek to transcend, were matched in Bangladesh with an authoritarian government dedicated to eliminating its parliamentary opposition, which is itself rather unsavory, thereby creating a depoliticized state. Perhaps militant politics, then, is a preliminary or self-annulling practice, whose language of conflict is simply meant to replace government with governance, essentially mirroring Bangladeshi authoritarianism. Or maybe its concern with fighting for the global community of Muslims it sees as under attack is anti-political by definition.

The problem of identification

If both the leftist Occupy movements and rightist anti-immigrant parties in Europe and America represent a protest against globalization, then militant Islam today may be a protest in favor of globalization’s fulfillment. After all, the anti-globalization movements seek to reclaim a lost politics of class or nation, while Muslim terrorism, despite its deployment of political categories like states, peoples, and conflict, does just the opposite, trying to achieve a depoliticized society under an unalterable and unquestionable divine law. In fact, Islamist and militant groups have always been mistrustful of the state and its politics. In this way they resemble, at least in their aims, otherwise very different projects — ranging from the authoritarian state to the neoliberal market-driven Islam of places like Malaysia or Turkey.

Like all globalized phenomena, Islamic militancy often escapes the arenas of national or even international politics, and can move easily from one context to another. It remains unclear whether movements like Al-Qaeda or even ISIS want to found a global politics or destroy its very possibility, an ambivalence manifested in the violence they both wreak. Militancy, as much as philanthropy, is obliged to speak in the name of vast and supposedly victimized constituencies like the “global South” or the “Muslim community,” which cannot represent themselves in any formal way because they don’t enjoy any kind of political existence. And just as with international NGOs, which claim to speak for humanity while remaining unaccountable to all but their donors, militant Islam struggles with the contradiction of identifying with victims who can never acknowledge this fellowship.

The French sociologist Luc Boltanski defined this problem as one characteristic of the media-diffused spectacle of “distant suffering” that serves as a call to humanitarian action. In the absence of an immediate political solution to this suffering, the spectator’s outrage is turned inwards, into a searching examination and criticism of his own guilt, pity, or sentimentality. It’s easy to see how self-sacrifice in its various forms — including dedicating time, money, and skills, as well as weapons or violence in the victim’s defense — might emerge as the strongest response to the call of such suffering. This is especially true when the victim in question is a rather abstract entity, lacking any political reality, like humanity or the Muslim ummah. To sacrifice oneself is to eliminate, willfully, the distance between oneself and the suffering of others. But in the absence of politics this enterprise remains deeply narcissistic, so that today’s militants also compel others to share in their suffering, as if desperate to make visible a real community of victims and spectators.

Hannah Arendt traced the violence with which such pity sought to annul itself in sacrifice to the French Revolution, and so to the historical beginnings of terror. In her view it was the “social question” posed by large-scale inequality, poverty, and oppression that gave rise to pity and its peculiar forms of violent identification, which sought to resolve suffering’s apparently intractable reality through revolution. However, she believed that to address the social question through politics in such a direct fashion was to destroy the latter’s institutions and integrity. But today, with the globalization of identification, suffering seems to have been removed from the province of political institutions and even revolutions altogether. Now suffering can be addressed only in unmediated forms of “moral” outrage and social violence, an approach far worse than even the most cynical of politics.

Politics after globalization

Recognizing its violent potential, Gandhi was one of global identification’s most important critics. He consistently refused to speak or act in the name of humanity, considering this a deeply hubristic and narcissistic enterprise, precisely because it was a politically impossible one. And yet the Mahatma didn’t condemn the idea of universality, and thought that nonviolence, for example, was capable of global expansion. But this was only possible by way of personal example and without making a mission out of it. Instead, as the project of nonviolence spread, control over it had to be constantly resigned. Gandhi described this process of expansion by way of resignation as constituting an “oceanic circle,” where the self-rule of single villages spilled over into that of districts, provinces, the nation, and beyond, without any central authority.

Gandhi’s vision of nonviolence as a practice of sacrifice spread by example, without requiring a central authority for its propagation, appears to describe the very way in which Islamic militancy works in our own time. But in his view this similarity would have allowed for the conversion of one kind of sacrifice into another, drawing out the common idea of goodness by which he thought evil was sustained, and so causing the latter’s collapse. The Mahatma, in other words, would have understood the attraction and even heroism of the terrorist’s sacrifice, as he did its manifestation among the militants of his time, but he would have tried to demonstrate that its most sublime form lay in nonviolence. However, this could only be done by linking sacrifice to what was politically possible.

One way in which the heroism of sacrifice can be made politically salient is by rendering oneself invulnerable to feelings of horror at the sight of suffering and the imperative to action it provoked. This also entails remaining indifferent or rather stoical about the kind of suffering over which one has no control. Such an attitude was, of course, implicit in Gandhi’s idea of resigning responsibility to others. It is an attitude that goes completely against the expansionary and even imperialistic spirit of humanitarianism, which he, like Arendt, thought only encouraged violence of various kinds. The Mahatma always maintained that the responsibility for one’s neighbor’s suffering took precedence over that of more distant victims. He was also highly critical of industrial technology — for instance, the railways — which permitted people to escape their neighbors and localities and to imagine a false identification with abstractions like humanity.

Martyrs and Muslims

It is neither possible nor desirable to return to a time before globalization, as far-right nationalists and others would like to do. But refusing an abstract identification with global entities like humanity, or the Muslim community that militants claim represents its victimization, is crucial to recovering the capacity for politics. Just as Gandhi rejected the idea of humanity as a project, so too might Muslims today refuse that of the Muslim ummah, if they are to do anything more than squabble with militants about theological semantics.

Tunisia’s Ennahda, the only successful Islamist party in the Arab world, has recently done just this after taking power in that country through the only successful revolution of the Arab Spring. Ennahda’s leader, Rachid Ghannouchi, seems to have realized that militant outfits like Al-Qaeda and ISIS have stolen radicalism and thus global influence from older Islamist groups like his own, and that the traditional resort to Pan-Islamic activism has, at the same time, become dangerous and meaningless. Ghannouchi has therefore forsaken the internationalism of the Muslim Brotherhood, as well as the global mission of terrorism, to define his Islam in purely Tunisian — which is to say, political — terms, hoping that this serves as an example for others in the region and beyond.

And in Dhaka we saw even more remarkable instances of such repudiation, when a number of Muslim hostages at the Holey Artisanal Bakery refused to identify with Islam and save their lives. A Bangladeshi-American student named Faraaz Hossain is being celebrated on social media for refusing to abandon his friends and dying alongside them, though he had apparently recited enough scripture to be freed by the terrorists. Even more interesting is the case of Ishrat Akhond, a young woman who refused even to identify herself as Muslim and court release. Here was a truly Gandhian sacrifice, one demonstrating its superiority to the one exercised by the militants. For Ishrat Akhond abjured Islam itself as a global identity and mission, and in doing so recovered her particularity as a Muslim.

Israel, the Occupation, and the Literary Life

By Toby Lichtig

LAST MONTH I published a piece in the TLS about a recent trip I took to the Jerusalem Writers Festival. Print being print, I had to keep to certain space constraints; but Israel, I find, is not a country that lends itself well to brevity in contemplation, and so there was a certain amount of surrounding material that had to go. Now LARB is kindly offering that material a home. Below is an unexpurgated version of my original TLS piece: an account of an edifying, depressing, convivial, and politically charged few days spent at a very unique literary event.

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“We are not pacifists. I’m willing to die for my country. We just believe the Occupation is morally indefensible.”

We’re in a minibus heading south from Jerusalem. Our guide is Yehuda Shaul, a bearded and thickset 33-year-old former commander in the Israeli army. Our destination is Hebron in the West Bank — ancient city of the Canaanites, sacred resting ground of the Patriarchs. My biblical history is sketchy but my Bar Mitzvah portion — Genesis 23, verses 1–20 — happens to concern Abraham’s purchase of a plot of land there, including the cave of Machpelah, in which he and his family are buried. Today Machpelah stands in the center of H2: the section of the city administered by Israel and studded with Jewish settlements. The largest of these, on Hebron’s outskirts, is Kiryat Arba, with a population of between seven and eight thousand; the smallest and newest, established in 2014, shelters just three families. 850 soldiers are permanently stationed to protect the settlers.

In 1994 the religious extremist Baruch Goldstein massacred 29 Palestinian worshippers in Machpelah — a site holy to both Jews and Muslims. In the Arab rioting that followed several so-called “sterile zones” were established around the Jewish settlements to keep the two communities apart. During the Second Intifada (2000–2005) these zones were extended. The story will be familiar to anyone with the least interest in the conflict: Palestinians are forbidden to drive down certain streets, or to walk down others; they are cut off from their neighbors, their local amenities; their markets have been closed. Many have moved away. This section of the city is, in the words of Shaul, a “ghost town.”

Our first stop is to a municipal park which houses Goldstein’s grave. The sun has come out and we wander around the scrubby, arid grounds squinting at the dubious attractions. Some of the more fanatical settlers have provided a plaque commemorating this “saint” who “gave his life for the people of Israel” (Goldstein was eventually beaten to death by the guards of Machpelah). Nearby is a statue honouring Meir Kahane, the ultra-nationalist rabbi of whom Goldstein was a disciple. Kahane was himself assassinated in New York in 1990. One of our party — the novelist Gary Shteyngart — shows great interest in the statue: “So that’s Kahane. When my parents emigrated from Russia to America we had no money. But my father gave the first hundred dollars he earned to that jerk.”

I’m not in Israel to write about Hebron or the occupation, but the lure of what Israelis euphemistically refer to as the Hamatzav (the Situation) is irresistible. It isn’t just a matter of prurience or preconception: it pervades every aspect of the Jerusalem Writers Festival at which I am a guest. Our host, Uri Dromi — the charming director general of the Jerusalem Press Club and the former press spokesman for the governments of Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres — seems especially keen for us to engage with the conflict. He explains to me that foreign visitors always want to ask about it anyway and so he deliberately puts the subject at the top of the agenda. After that his mission is to demonstrate that Israel is about so much more.

Our itinerary for the week is helpfully marked out with events we are “expected” to attend. Revealingly few of these concern the festival itself. There is a tour of the ancient city; a visit to the National Library; a trip to Yad Vashem. In Old Jerusalem our guide points out instances of “fascist” anti-Palestinian graffiti stickered to the walls. Arabic street signs have been scrubbed out and the nose on King David’s statue is broken — “idolatry” being, to the religious Jews who live here, even more unacceptable than the presence of the Palestinians. We are led through the winding streets and across a schoolyard game of football to a view of the infamous separation wall (or “security fence,” depending on your politics). It is, says our guide, a necessary evil: “The wall is bad. Terrorism is worse.”

Near the entrance to the city’s Armenian quarter there are posters commemorating the centenary of the Armenian genocide — an atrocity unrecognized by the Israeli Government, which has shrewd political reasons for keeping good relations with both Turkey (the perpetrators) and Azerbaijan (a country that has its own dispute with Armenia over the contested area of Nagorno-Karabakh). Before descending to the base of the Western Wall, where Jewish tourists cram paper scraps of prayer into the overloaded cracks, only meters away from Muslim visitors to the Dome of the Rock above, we take in the view of this many-layered city, storeyed and storied, seemingly every yellowed hunk of Jerusalem stone drenched in history, mythology, blood. The Christian population here has dwindled to less than two percent but the Muslim one is on the rise — a fact the official demographers do their best to fudge. The total official population here is 850,000, but in reality, says our guide, it’s more than one million.

At the Church of the Holy Sepulchre we are provided with a meticulous description of the six warring Christian denominations that control the building. The bickering is so great, and so petty, that nobody can agree on who should change the light bulbs outside the Edicule of Christ’s tomb (an Israeli security guard tends to do the job). As with seemingly everything in this country, the anecdote has a wider resonance: “So you can see, it isn’t just the Israelis and Palestinians who can’t agree,” says our guide. On the subject of a two-state solution he is broadly positive but unable to see past certain obstacles: “I’m in favor of the division of Jerusalem. But how?”

The following day, at the National Library, we are shown a series of atlases drawn by visitors to the Holy Land over the past half-millennium — a reminder of just how long people have been coming here and recording their impressions, often with scant regard for scale and perspective. Dr. Raquel Ukeles, the curator of the Islam and Middle East Collection, describes the current project to digitize the library’s copious Arabic material. The library, we are told, used to be located atop Mount Scopus. When the site was cut off from Israel by the Jordanians during the 1948 war, the books had to be smuggled out. Another survivor put before us is a trampled novel by the great Hebrew author S. Y. Agnon, the damage sustained during Kristallnacht. We are shown the suicide note of Stefan Zweig.

The next morning we are taken to Yad Vashem. There is an uncomfortable moment when our guide takes us to the section on the Łódź Ghetto and one of our party pipes up: “It’s just like Gaza.” Most of our party see that the comment does a disservice to both the victims of the Holocaust and to today’s Gazans, whose suffering has its own unique character and cause. Our guide — a retirement-age historian — declares himself deeply offended, and the Muslim woman who made the comment apologizes. The Holocaust equivalence game is never very edifying, and yet I can see where the outburst has come from, can sense the frustration behind it. I have never been to an arts festival that so insistently attempts to sell the host nation to its visitors. The propaganda isn’t sinister, perhaps not even unwarranted. It betrays a justifiable anxiety: an anxiety from the left-wing organizers to demonstrate to the visitors that Israel isn’t what they think it is; that Israel, despite its faults, is a thriving democracy and regional necessity.

Many of the events are in Hebrew but some are in English and all that I attend address the Hamatzav. At the festival opener even President Reuven Rivlin is at it, introducing the theme of “international collaboration” with an admirably loaded warning about the “danger” of only having one story to tell. It is a refrain that will crop up time and again throughout the week. As the Colombian novelist Juan Gabriel Vásquez will later comment: “Good writing is always saying the world is more complicated than you think.”

The speakers at this opener are David Grossman and Colum McCann. Grossman is a national hero in Israel, and the marquee — set against the Judean hills, the horizon framed by the wall — is packed. The two discuss the parallels between separatism in Ireland and in Israel. Reacting to Grossman’s despair about his country’s lurch to the political right, McCann provocatively asks him: “So, why don’t you leave?” His interlocutor patiently explains that running away from Israel’s problems is not the answer.

McCann’s question is a paraphrase of one asked earlier in the week by J. M. Coetzee — a writer who willingly abandoned his own divided nation. A few miles up the road in Ramallah, Coetzee has been attending the rival PalFest, a literary festival timed to compete with the Jerusalem one, at which his final address will include a comparison between South African apartheid and the Israeli occupation. The Nobel laureate was once invited to the Jerusalem Writers Festival but politely declined. “When there’s peace call me,” he told Dromi. There is no collaboration between PalFest and the JWF — a result of the BDS (Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions) campaign against Israel. I can see the point of BDS, even in this context: the playing field isn’t level and thus any cooperation between the two sides will be tainted from the start. And yet I can’t help thinking how a partnership between the two festivals might be fruitful, that such division can only maintain the status quo. Later, at a private author briefing, Grossman will agree. The simple matter, he says, is that BDS “won’t help.”

The author briefings are perhaps the most enjoyable and edifying parts of the week. Grossman chats to us for an hour about his life, his work, and, of course, the Hamatzav. So does Etgar Keret, who tells an illustrative anecdote about the public response to a short story he once wrote. The tale describes an assault by an Israeli soldier on a Palestinian fighter: “Someone wrote in to attack me for being a left-wing liberal. Someone else accused me of being a fascist.” Another author, Meir Shalev, claims not to like “political” literature. But we still end up talking politics. Shalev was serving as a soldier when Israel “liberated” the Golan Heights in 1967. He describes himself as being on the left but seems less despairing than Grossman and Keret. When he finds out the rest of the program he jokes with Dromi: “Didn’t you have any right-wing authors to talk to them?”

A. B. Yehoshua is not a right-wing author but he is a hardliner when it comes to Jewishness. “Diaspora Judaism is masturbation,” he has said, declaring that a “full Jewish life” can only be had in Israel. At the author briefing he repeats this claim and I object.

“Are you American?” he asks.

“British.”

“And you’re not Jewish?”

“I am.”

He looks mildly taken aback, and I realize he was expecting me to say no.

I wonder how his argument might differ if I were a gentile. But I am not a gentile and I thus find myself, time and again, overcome by a heightened sense of involvement in the debates we are engaged in: about Israeli security, Israeli history, Israeli demography. My perceived stake in this country is equivocal (I tell Yehoshua that ambivalence is central to my own experience of a “full Jewish life”) and not always comfortable. I have mixed feelings about the fact that I, a UK passport holder, have a right to live in a land, based on my ethnicity, from which several hundred thousand former inhabitants are barred, based on theirs. And yet the pull is also irresistible. My grandfather was a Zionist who helped to build the roads in 1920s Tel Aviv, and, despite my disdain for many elements of early settler mythology, I find it hard not to be seduced by what Grossman’s calls the “miracle” of Israel. “But are we loyal to that miracle?” Grossman asks. “I’m less and less sure.”

¤

There is little that is miraculous about Hebron. And as we make our way on foot through the “ghost town” of H2, Yehuda points out, street by street, the intricate daily indignities faced by its remaining Arab citizens. You can see it all around you: the emptiness, the lack of life. Shops are shuttered up, houses abandoned. There is a lone water seller, near the cave of Machpelah, and when we approach his children rush to help. A few kids play football in the streets, watched on benignly by soldiers, who occasionally punt a stray ball back. An imaginary line, at the intersection of a street leading to a Jewish settlement, demarcates where the kids are not allowed to pass. On another residential road, barred to access by Palestinians (but not to settlers or tourists) some of the front doors have been sealed. Five Arab families remain inside the homes. They must come and go via the roofs.

Yehuda points up the valley to a school building perched over a cliff. Fifteen years ago, during the Second Intifada, he was stationed in the building from where his task was to send “preemptive” fire from a grenade machine gun into the Palestinian neighborhood below. The fire was largely “indiscriminate”, he tells us. “At first it was very difficult. I’d pull the trigger and hope nobody was harmed. By day five it had become like a computer game.”

Experiences such as this led Yehuda to question the nature of his service — and of the occupation. He went on to form, with several fellow comrades, the charity Breaking the Silence. The charity’s main function is to collect confidential testimonies from soldiers who are serving in the Occupied Territories (OT). For this work, it was recently awarded the prestigious Berelson Prize for Jewish-Arab Understanding by the Middle East Studies department of Ben-Gurion University. The prize was rescinded only days later, however, by the university’s president, Professor Rivka Carmi, who concluded that the charity’s aims do not belong to “the national consensus.” This followed what the liberal Israeli newspaper Haaretz called “a vicious incitement campaign against the organization,” waged for its ability to undermine the Israeli military occupation — something the current government seems more than capable of doing all by itself.

The charity’s reach is long — and getting longer. Four years ago it brought out a book of these soldier testimonies — Our Harsh Logic — in English. To mark 50 years of occupation, another Anglophone book will be published next year, made up of over 30 firsthand reports from authors who have been taken by Yehuda and his colleagues on visits similar to this one. The contributors will include Mario Vargas Llosa, Colm Tóibin, and Eimear McBride. It was McBride who put me on to Yehuda in the first place. My visit to Hebron has nothing to do with the festival but when I mention it to Dromi he tells me he is in favor of invitees seeing the “other side.”

As well as its various restrictions, Palestinian life on this “other side” involves rather more invasive measures. Yehuda describes the army’s tactics of “making your presence felt” and “showing sovereignty.” This may involve random domestic searches in the middle of the night, or many other forms of basic intimidation. Outside of direct conflict, however, it is not the soldiers whom the Palestinians have to fear. They are frequently attacked by their Jewish neighbors; the settlers loot their homes and seize empty properties in the area, necessitating further “sterile zones.”

The night before our visit, a group of settlers celebrating the “bonfire” festival of Lag B’Omer raided a Palestinian house, stealing furniture for the flames. The owner was inside. It is, says Yehuda, a fairly common occurrence, and the soldiers are impotent to intervene. “They are here to protect the settlers,” he comments, and military law makes it illegal for the IDF to come to the Palestinians’ aid. All they can do is call the municipal police, by which time it is often too late. We get a taste of the tensions when a settler approaches us. “It’s all lies,” he shouts at us in English. Behind him are the deserted remains of H2’s once-thriving vegetable market. He stands on a street adorned with pristine signs in Hebrew — the location’s Arabic name fast fading into memory.

On the way out of Hebron I arrange for a taxi to transport me to a moshav near Beersheba where I will be having dinner with my cousins and aunt. My aunt is in her late 80s and made aliyah to Israel in the 1950s; unlike anyone at the Jerusalem Writers Festival she steadfastly refuses to discuss politics. Leaving the West Bank we are stopped at a checkpoint. “Where have you come from?” an Israeli officer asks me. I tell him and he gestures for us pull into a clearing. My taxi driver, an Arab Israeli, looks a little weary. “It is best in these situations not to say you’ve just been to Hebron,” he tells me. I sheepishly apologize but I’m secretly rather pleased. I’ve been keen to see how checkpoints around here operate — even if my experience will have little in common with that of Palestinians from the Occupied Territories seeking entry into Israel.

A group of affable Arab Israelis is in front of me and we strike up conversation. The atmosphere is relaxed, despite the setting. Eventually it is my turn. My bag is searched and I’m questioned. To save time and avoid further irritating my ride I lie and say I’ve just been to visit Machpelah. “And where are you going to now?” the soldier asks. “To Beersheba,” I reply. And then: “I’ve been invited by my aunt to Shabbat dinner.”

I could pretend to myself that I’m just being friendly, conversational, but really there’s something else at play. I want her to know that I am Jewish. I could also pretend that this is a matter of expediency, a way of smoothing my passage, but really it’s something more. I seem to want to emphasize my tie to this land: I who have just strolled through an Arab town denuded of its Palestinian residents because of the actions of a group of illegal Jewish settlers and their protection by the IDF.

The soldier remains impassive. Eventually she waves me through.

Watching Our Words: on Brexit

By David Taylor

For many of us in the UK the past few days have been painfully difficult. Among those who wanted to keep Britain in the EU, there’s been a sense of shock, shame, and anger — not least at our own complacency. But the prevailing mood might best be described as elegiac. What I’m experiencing both personally and collectively seems to be something akin to mourning.

This might sound overblown, sentimental perhaps, but the truth is that we are grieving, for our disfigured present and, more profoundly still, for the array of possible futures — individually, politically, nationally, transnationally — that now seem suddenly and irremediably lost to us. These are the dissolving horizons I find myself tracing each time I look at my four-month-old daughter. Right now it’s impossible even to imagine what future we’re bequeathing her.

Such grief, as it’s wont to do, breaks apart our capacity for language. In speaking to my friends over the last four days, in reading and sometimes finding solace in their myriad thoughts and reflections on social media, what strikes me most is the desperate, self-acknowledged futility of our words as we attempt to give coherent shape to what’s happened and is still unfolding, as we search for ways to accommodate the referendum result to the nation — the Europe — we know or want.

We need this grappling. Perhaps it’s cathartic. Perhaps it’s really all we can do at the moment. But, however we voted last Thursday, we also need to remember the damage that words can and have caused. In thinking about the 52 percent — the 17.4 million people — who voted to Leave the EU, it’s vital that we keep in mind Raymond Williams’s sage words: “There are in fact no masses,” he tells us, “but only ways of seeing people as masses.” If this message reminds us how toxic are the images of “immigrants” pedalled by the likes of Nigel Farage, leader of the UK Independence Party, then it should also caution us against simply caricaturing all Leave voters as xenophobes or racists. Nothing is to be gained by doing so.

Words have done real harm over recent months. The Leave campaign called on us to “Make Britain Great Again”. Britain was never “great”, or rather when it was “great” it was murderously so. But the Remain campaign wasn’t much better. In its incessant talk of “safety”, “jobs”, and “prices”, its corrosive negativity and refusal to think of “cost” in anything other than economic terms, it determinedly effaced the history and cultural complexity of the European project.

Since the result was announced, we have new problem words to contend with. Take “divorce”, for example, which been doing the rounds across the media. “Who’s going to handle the divorce negotiations?,” I heard one journalist ask an MP on TV yesterday. “What will Britain’s divorce from the EU look like?,” ponders the Financial Times. The metaphor of a broken marriage is a mistaken one, not least given that Britain will be leaving a union of 28 member states, but what should worry us is the narrative that it quietly and insistently imposes on past, present, and future: the endless bickering, the long and drawn out struggle, the enduring bitterness. The more entrenched this metaphor becomes, the more we give space to a self-fulfilling prophecy.

And then there’s “revolution”, a word that’s been used over and over in the contexts of both celebration and shock in recent days — and by some distinguished political commentators and journalists. Whatever it is, the referendum result is not a strike against the political establishment by those who feel disenfranchised. I’m not suggesting that many of those who voted to take Britain out of the EU didn’t conceive of their choice in exactly these terms; I’m quite sure they did. But the political reality is somewhat different.

Let’s be clear. Concerns about immigration have come from the political centre in Britain. Over many years the likes of David Cameron and others have the deployed the rhetoric of soft xenophobia and British exceptionalism in order to score political points and win elections. Nigel Farage has pushed this rhetoric much further, of course, but he’s done no more than render explicit what was otherwise (barely) latent. Nor is he the outsider, the common man he claims to be. Rather, this privately-educated son of a stockbroker is a self-fashioned “maverick” who rhetorically positions himself against the very elite to which he in fact belongs (sound familiar, Americans?).

So there’s no revolution to be seen here — and, again, by using this word we accept a narrative that distorts and masks a reality that is far more disconcerting. For the referendum result shows just how effectively white, Oxbridge-educated men have sold their dangerous hyperbole to millions of people. Looking past the different campaigns and political parties, and the downfall of particular individuals, all I see is the strength, not the weakness, of the same old hegemony.

Call me a pedant, if you will. I don’t have any answers. I’ve no idea where we go from here, and yes, it hurts to admit this. But I do know something about words: their histories, their uses, their vital and perilous importance to us. And as we move forward I implore us all — whatever our nation, however we vote — to handle them with care.

Outliving Dad

By Eric Lax

When my father died, in 1976, he had lived his allotted three score and ten years, plus two more. Two years and two months more to the day, to be precise. Six months before his death he looked like he would go on for decades. Then that February, a persistent cough led to the discovery of an enveloping mass around his lungs that was impossible to resect. On a hot August afternoon he rolled over to greet me when I walked into his hospital room and a minute later was dead in my arms.

Forty years later I still think of him many times a day: Wanting to have had more than 32 years with him; wishing he could have known the wonderful woman I married six years later and our two sterling sons; missing a conversation with advice as well as one of the long groaner jokes he loved to tell and told so well. And these days, I think of something else about him. On August 1, assuming that between now and then the bus with my name on it doesn’t stop to pick me up, I will have outlived him.

He was 40 when I was born and I saw it was not a drawback to have a father older than most, and so I was unconcerned that I was 42 and 45 when Simon and John were born. He taught me to love openly by telling me every day that he loved me, and he consistently demonstrated the bedrock importance of respecting others. Apart from the teenage periods when I felt he was completely clueless (I was amazed by how smart he got between my 17th and 18th birthdays), I hoped to be a lot like him and I measure myself and my abilities as a father and as a person against his, hoping to match them. For all those years he was ahead of me but soon he will be behind me. I’ll be the older with no more measurements against what he did at my then-current age.

He seemed immortal when I was a boy (for that matter, I thought I was immortal), and even for a while as the cancer consumed him it still seemed impossible that he would die, until suddenly it didn’t. By chance one day after the diagnosis, I reunited with a close friend since childhood on the M5 bus going down Fifth Avenue, a woman my father adored and who adored him as well, whom I had not seen in a couple of years. She invited me to dinner with her partner, a doctor. Over pasta and his exquisite red sauce, my friend and I reminisced about my father, all the while introducing him to someone new. We had drinks. We laughed a lot. Then midway through a sentence that I began in a light tone, tears erupted. “I don’t want him to die!” I wailed, and for the next 5 minutes I bawled and sniffled, unable to say more.

In the months after the surgery, optimism or disappointment—depending on the scans and X-rays—followed my father’s visits to the oncologist. In that time, we talked in bursts about our lives, catching up and filling in, saying what we wanted to say. I was with him the day after an appointment in mid-August. He asked me to answer the phone because his voice was weak from the chemotherapy. It was the doctor. His report was brief: the cancer had spread to the bones and there was nothing left to hope for, except an easy death. I struggled to keep tears at bay as I repeated the news to Dad. I told him I loved him very much and could not have had a better father. In an instant we had flipped roles; I was the father, offering succor. Then we flipped back. He was equally loving in reply but also remarkably calm, which stilled me. He was uncomplaining about his fate, I think in part because he had said some days before that life with the pain he felt wasn’t worth living, but also because, as an Episcopal priest with a deep understanding of and compassion for human frailty, he possessed abiding faith that there was something better ahead. He asked me to look out for my mother, and then, preferring pleasure to sorrow, suggested we get a beer and go outside to sit on a palisade overlooking the Pacific. I keep a picture in my office of him taken that afternoon, a broad smile on his face, a glass raised in salute. Two weeks later he was gone.

It is often said that one of the greatest lessons our parents can give us is how to die, and his grace carried to the end, as did my mother’s 20 years later through a torturous 2-year-long decline from ALS. Of course grace is something we hope to pass on to our kids in many ways, starting with how to live a life well. My sons are 26 and 29. I have not wondered much if or how they measure themselves against me or whether something I have done is a marker for them. (Although thinking on this, I am pretty sure that an evening involving a more than adequate sufficiency of Mai Tais at Trader Vic’s followed by jayrunning across a busy street is an experience they have resolved not to repeat with their teenage children.)

Many of us live in the shadow of our father. For some that shadow is an oppressive cloak that prevents us from either becoming or being seen for our own self. My father cast a long shadow but it at once sheltered me and offered a safe place to grow. His pride in any accomplishment I had was evident, even something as prosaic as growing taller than him. “A block off the old chip,” he would say. He looked a bit like the early film comedian Stan Laurel while my mother more resembled Ingrid Bergman. Sometimes he would add, “He has his mother’s looks, because I still have mine.” And I still have all he taught me as company for the mapless road ahead.

 

“When We Were Kings”

By Peter Rainer

Excerpt from Rainer on Film: Thirty Years of Film Writing in a Turbulent and Transformative Era (Santa Monica Press 2013).

IN NORMAN MAILER’S The Fight, his great book on the Muhammad Ali/George Foreman “Rumble in the Jungle,” he begins by writing of Ali, “There is always the shock in seeing him again. Not live as in television but standing before you, looking his best. Then the World’s Greatest Athlete is in danger of being our most beautful man, and the vocabulary of Camp is doomed to appear. Women draw an audible breath. Men look down. They are reminded again of their lack of worth.”

This may sound like hyperbole but Mailer — like Ali — lives in the region where hyperbole can be transcendent. (It can also be bull). Mailer’s response to Ali in this passage is also our response to seeing him in When We Were Kings, Leon Gast’s amazing documentary about the 1974 Zaire fight and the events surrounding it. The film is unabashed hero-worship, but Ali is so clearly a hero here that we don’t feel swept away by gush. And because of what Ali has become — and George Foreman, too, with his newfound cuddliness — the movie is doubly poignant now. The documentary is, in essence, not much more than a record of what happened in Zaire, but it has been assembled with real feeling for the historical moment. It’s literally a blast from the past.

It’s also something of a miracle because it almost didn’t get made. Gast, who had already directed documentaries about the Hell’s Angels and the Grateful Dead, was initially hired to film the musical festivities surrounding the fight. He had in mind an African-American Woodstock complete with James Brown, B. B. King, the Jazz Crusaders, Bill Withers, the Spinners. Then, four days before the fight was scheduled, a cut to Foreman’s eye during a sparring session postponed the match for six weeks. Gast ended up training his cameras on Ali for much of that time, and what he came up with is the core of this movie.

It took almost 23 years to assemble. Returning broke from Zaire with 300,000 feet of celluloid — about a hundred hours — Gast spent the next 15 years processing portions of the film as he was able to pay for it. After finally untangling legal rights and acquiring completion funds, Gast and his newfound partner, David Sonenberg, an influential music talent manager, made the decision to insert additional fight footage and archival clips. They brought in Taylor Hackford to shoot and edit into the film look-back interviews with, among others, Mailer and George Plimpton and Ali biographer Thomas Hauser.

Gast includes snatches of the musicians doing their thing, but for the most part When We Were Kings is a musical in form far more than in content. It’s shaped like a musical — an opera, really — with arias of exhortation, massed choruses, and pomp. Gast knows how to syncopate the story; he gives it a pulse that finally makes it seem like the whole cavalcade of hype and holler is once again upon us.

Of course, we know how it all turned out: Ali, game but somewhat past his prime, stunned the world by knocking out the man most believed would demolish him. Gast builds our knowledge of the fight’s outcome into the film’s structure; there’s a retrospective thrill in seeing how hot the tumult got. It’s easy to forget now how geniune was the fear that Ali might be killed in the ring.

It’s the fear that underscores everything we see — the interviews with the sports commentators and trainers and fight organizers, with Ali’s giddy multitudinous African fans and even a worrywart Howard Cosell, who hyperbolizes about his concerns for Ali’s safety. Mailer makes the point during an interview that Ali must have recognized in his most private moments that Foreman could pulverize him, and the perception lends an extra dimension to Ali’s almost hysterical rants again his challenger. He takes up the African cry Ali boma ye — which means “Ali, kill him” — and is so rapturously insistent in leading the charge that the effect is frightening. It’s as if Ali were exorcising his own horrors right before our eyes.

Ali was attuned in a way Foreman wasn’t to the political momentousness of the event. “From slave ship to championship” was how he billed the fight, and his back-to-Africa oratory resonated with the Zaireans, who revered him not so much because he was a great fighter but because he stood up to the American government and refused induction into the Vietnam War. “No Vietcong ever called me nigger” was his mantra in all those years, and it made him a champion’s champion for people who sized up the racist implications of that war.

Ali had to demonize Foreman in the eyes of Africans; it was his standard operating procedure to run down his opponents before any fight. But Ali was faced with a problem in Zaire: In a match between two great black boxers in the “homeland,” how do you play up the racial angle? Ali was in fact much lighter-skinned that Foreman, but he castigates him as, in effect, white. “He’s in my country,” Ali says of Foreman, who had the misfortune to arrive in Zaire with his German shepherd — the very dog used by the Belgians to police the Congo.

Throughout When We Were Kings Ali comes on like — in Gast’s words — the Original Rapper. He successfully bleaches Foreman with his patter; he milks the press, the trainers, the camera crew. He says, “I’m not fighting for me, I’m fighting for black people who have no future.” Ali is not only a boxer of genius, he’s a politician of genius. I remembered being baffled by how wooden he was playing himself in “The Greatest.” But Ali — who has as much charisma as any movie star who ever lived — can come alive only by his own wit and instinct. To play a role in a movie, even if the role is himself, would mummify his genie.

When Ali lit the Olympic torch in Atlanta and we saw up close the effects of his Parkinson’s disease, the press covered the moment as if it were an unalloyed triumph. The commentators didn’t allow for our mixed emotions, our rage even, for what Ali had become — possibly owing in large measure to his having taken so many blows to the head from such fighters as George Foreman while we cheered him on. Ali is a hero still, but in a more complicated way. His presence is both an inspiration and an admonition. When We Were Kings brings back the unimpeded joy we once felt in Ali’s presence. It’s a movie in a state of denial — magnificent, unapologetic denial.

(1997)

Pico Diary #3

By Jon Wiener

At the Apple Pan, the guy waiting in line next to me says, “I started coming here in 1947, when I was eight years old.  My family came here once a week.  Always had the steakburger.  Across the street, where the Westside Pavilion is now, there was an empty lot.  Once a year the Clyde Beatty circus would come—they had everything, lions and tigers and elephants.  My brother and I would get jobs pitching hay for the animals.  You don’t know Clyde Beatty?  He was a famous lion-tamer, and he was big!  He was in movies and on the radio and eventually on TV.”

¤

Unknown

¤

What’s new at the newsstand?  I ask the guy there, a new immigrant.  He points to Vanity Fair, and says “Everybody is buying.”  The cover is glamour shot of Meryl Street 30 years ago, her head thrown back and eyes closed in what might be ecstasy.  He asks me, sincerely: “Who is it?”

¤

Dusk on Pico—you can see inside the shops.  Inside the Subway, three big guys in flannel shirts are playing cards.  At the karate studio next door, the teacher tells one of the adults in the class to attack him with a knife (it’s made of wood).  The guy lunges at him, the teacher grabs his arm, flips him around and onto the floor, and “stabs” the “attacker” with his own knife.

¤

Across the street the door to Pico Teriyaki House is open–for the first time in more than a decade!  I walk in—it’s full of men at tables of four, grilling meat on hibachis.  A guy at the first table says, “Can I help you?” 

I say “I’ve never seen this place open before.”

He says “we’re not open.”  Long pause. 

I say “private party?”

He says “yes.”  Long pause.

I say “Okay, thanks!”  and leave.

Next door the guy who runs the music shop is locking up.  I ask him what he knows about his neighbor.  “They were open for lunch about 15 years ago,” he said.  “I went once.  They had the greatest teriyaki I’ve ever eaten.  Ever since then they’ve been closed.  But the guy is in there every day. And every year his cars get fancier.  Something is going on there – but I don’t know what it is.”

¤

Jon Wiener lives south of Pico, near the Pep Boys at Manning Ave. Read the previous installment of the “Pico Diary.”

Fonzie

By Bernadette Murphy

The desk of Alex, a salesman at Harley-Davidson of Glendale, features a picture of Fonzie sitting on a Triumph motorcycle with a girl wearing a skirt sitting on the back, holding on to him fetchingly. The photo surfaced from the auction catalog when the actual motorcycle was found in someone’s garage after years of neglect.

“I always wanted to be Fonzie,” Alex says of the TV character whose last official appearance dates back nearly thirty years. We’re hanging out and chatting while my motorcycle is being serviced. Alex is almost ten years younger than me and must have gotten in on the tail end of the Happy Days era.

“I always wanted to date Fonzie,” I reply, plunking myself into the proper gender-specific role. As a girl who grew up in the ’70s, I can’t rightly wish for more than that. Yet I can’t explain to Alex that my yearning was deeper, more visceral. I wanted to consume Fonzie—just like the Holy Communion I took each week at Mass—and by ingesting him, to engender in myself the qualities I so admired.

I haven’t thought about my Fonzie obsession in decades. As a teenager, the names Fonzie, the Fonz, Arthur Fonzarelli, and Henry Winkler could all rocket me to a fourth dimension. I was a tomboy, a girl who competed and was ranked nationally in skateboarding, a young lady more comfortable in a pair of Van’s slip-ons and corduroy OP shorts than kitten heels and skirts, someone who liked to hang with the guys at empty, abandoned swimming pools to skateboard rather than go to the mall with girlfriends to shop.

I bought fan magazines featuring Henry Winkler, went to every movie he made, read his biographies, toyed with acting because that would put me in the same mental territory as this man/character/dream figure. Though Fonzie was my favorite, Winkler didn’t have to be Arthur Fonzarelli to make me swoon; any contact with him would do it. If we were to sit down and talk, I believed, we’d pick up a conversation that had already been in progress.

Perhaps I was searching for male approval. My father was preoccupied caring for my severely mentally ill mother, watching out for my youngest brother who was fast becoming a juvenile delinquent, and trying to tend the five basically motherless kids in our family, while striving to keep food in the kitchen cabinets and making sure we went to Mass on Sundays. I’m sure, in some way, my father would have given me that approval if I’d known how to ask. But I didn’t.

When couldn’t get the approval I was looking for at home, I sought it with my skateboard and the grudging respect I earned from the boys — male approval was male approval, after all. But soon even that power faded and I looked where young girls turn next for that anointing: my own sexual power. Only, in adolescence, I didn’t know really that’s what it was I was reaching for.

My conversation with Alex moves on to other motorcycle-related subjects, but something is amiss. I’ve just lied to him and, more important, to myself.

“Actually, I take that back,” I clarify, knowing the truth doesn’t matter to Alex but it does to me. “I wanted to be Fonzie, too.”

After that, I decide to look deeper into my Fonzie obsession. Certainly, the Fonz was an important role model, demonstrating what it meant to be immune from peer pressure and true to one’s self. That made perfect sense at an age when my identity was forming. But now I am in midlife with established demographic markers—professor, author, homeowner, mother of three—when coolness seems radically beside the point. Yet the more I think about my long-forgotten Fonzie fascination, the more I find the qualities he embodied as important as ever. I am grappling once again with issues of identity.

I have just separated from my husband of 25 years and am living on my own for the first time. I now make my home in a one-room apartment perched above a garage, just like Fonzie. When riding my motorcycle, I wear motorcycle boots and a black leather jacket, just like Fonzie — though to be fair, I wear spring dresses and lace blouses when not on the bike. I’m learning to make my way through life as a solo person, no longer tied by traditional family bonds, a loner, just like Fonzie. Only I am the parent of three nearly grown children, 49, and female. Still, I feel myself channeling some of the energy, the chutzpah, the boldness, the generosity of spirit I found in the character. In short, I find myself needing to emulate Fonzie in order to survive.

My phone rings one evening while cooking dinner.

“Hello,” a gentle male voice speaks. “This is Henry Winkler.”

I almost drop the phone. “You just made my night,” I say.

Weeks ago, I’d told a writing colleague that I’d love to chat with him. Winkler now coauthors with my colleague the Hank Zipzer series of children’s books that tell the everyday adventures of a bright young boy with learning challenges. I never thought he’d actually call. He graciously agrees to schedule a phone interview. I try not to gush.

I competed on skateboards until age 16 when I attracted my first boyfriend, a “bad boy” in his own way. Over time, I gave up my skateboard and 501 Levi’s for high-heeled Candies sandals, Calvin Klein must-lie-prone-on-the-bed-to-zip-them jeans, makeup, and giggles. I learned to toss my hair and came to understand that boys didn’t want girls to hang with them at empty swimming pools if they could make out with them in cars. I discovered the socially acceptable role for girls like me: to become pretty like the rest.

My foray into that world wasn’t a comfortable fit. That first boyfriend pressured me into having sex when I was just as happy to cuddle. Fear of abandonment was enough to earn my acquiescence. That coupling at age 16 resulted in a teen pregnancy and a child relinquished for adoption. Returning to my high school after a stint in the Teen Mother Program brought with it whispered cruelties, ugly notes on my locker, a sense of being ostracized, and a cloud of shame surrounding my sexuality that would shadow me for the next thirty years.

“All I know is what the Fonz was to me, and what I added on, over the years, to the fabric of the Fonz,” says Winkler when we talk. “When I first started him, even in the audition, he was — the first word that comes to my mind but it’s not the best word — cooler than I am, he was more definite than I am, he was more sure about the air he moved when he walked through the world than I am — or even was. He was my alter ego. He was fun to play because he was who I wanted to be, also.”

As a result of my high school experiences, I learned my lesson fast and hard. Girls were meant to be not only pretty but also tame, and to follow the socially conscribed rules. Take one step outside of that realm and you will be slammed.

I finished my education, commuting from my father’s house to the local state college, and was married upon graduation to the most Richie Cunningham-type man I could find — no more bad boys for me! In short order I became a mother of three and settled in, adopting Winnie-the-Pooh jumpers paired with sensible mom shoes. Long gone were both extremes: the tomboy in torn Levi’s scrambling over a chain-link fence to gain access to a skateboarding venue, as well as the girl surprised by her budding sexuality, outfitted in too-tight jeans, unsure of what the sensual realm entailed other than trouble.

“He was who he was,” Winkler reflects. “And that was the strength that pushed everybody back, that made them want to follow him, and backed people down when they wanted to fight. He never actually threw a punch,” Winkler pauses. “It was the intimidation of authenticity — and that is more powerful than anything. He was so confident that he was able to be vulnerable.”

My life choices were exactly what my father would have wanted. Traditional Irish Catholic to the core, he prized the virtue of motherhood and was most pleased when I fulfilled that role. At the same time, he disapproved of my writing. When my first book was published, he was so angered by what I’d written about my mother’s mental illness that he didn’t speak to me for two years. I tried through my writing to get him to see the “real” me, asking him to acknowledge if not approve of who I was. He preferred the construct he’d created: the good wife and mother to his grandchildren, the docile and obedient woman. That was the only woman he could condone. The same was basically true with my husband. He loved the homemaker image of me, the Play Dough-making mother, and didn’t seem to care to meet the full person I was.

Aren’t these the lessons the larger culture instills in us, simply reinforced in my case by my family members?

I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised, then, when the tomboy in me began to rustle, calling, bursting through the constraints I’d placed on her. I started backpacking, then climbing mountains, open-water kayaking, getting tattooed, running marathons, coming out as who I really was and had abandoned decades earlier. People who’d known me for years looked askance. Midlife crisis, they concluded.

But that wasn’t it. I was a reclaiming the person I’d always been, the girl who’d shaped herself into a mold that didn’t fit out of fear of yet another cultural and familial banishment.

It all started when, at age 48, I learned to ride a motorcycle. The minute I got the machine to skim smoothly over the blacktop, I was hooked. As I began to master the motorcycle, a complete version of myself coalesced. Weaving through orange cones on the training range, I sensed the two parts of me work in tandem for perhaps the first time. I felt as weightless and graceful as a dancer, executing moves of precision and elegance, as feminine as possible, while also aware of the brawn and boldness required to get that macho machine to do what I wanted it to. The male and female energies in me complimented rather than competed with each other.

There are few narratives in our culture that support this kind of tomboy, motorcycle riding, adventure-seeking life I was creating. I think back to Thelma & Louise, now approaching its 25th anniversary, the only road adventure film I can name in which women are the primary characters. In the film world, I struggle to name any female road story that does not end badly for the woman. Rape and death are the most common outcomes.  There have been a few books featuring female adventurers — the tales of Dervla Murphy come to mind — but these are the exceptions to the rule.  Where am I to find role models?

I ask Winkler about his experience with the motorcycle. I’d heard he was terrified of it.

“Not terrified,” he explains. “I almost never rode the motorcycle. I think I rode it for, like, 12 feet. But I was intimidated. I did not think that I could ride it with the internal confidence of not spilling it. I did not think I could figure out the hand, and the hand, and foot, and the hand, and the gear, and the speed, and the brake.”

I am ashamed of the hint of smugness I feel, hearing this. No wonder getting my motorcycle endorsement at the DMV felt so great. I had mastered a skill Winkler had shied away from.

So what was the draw of the motorcycle for Fonzie? The outlaw persona, the macho element, the beauty of the mechanics?

Winkler laughs. “All of it! He rode a motorcycle, loved it, loved just sitting on it.”

I knew the feeling. Not overnight, but fast enough to draw strange looks in my suburban world, leather boots and a jacket appeared, followed by a matte-black Harley that would make Bat Girl proud. The approval I’d craved from my father, my husband, and men in general was now bubbling up from within me. For the first time in my life, I didn’t simply want to be The Fonz. I had, on some psychic level, become him.

It’s a process Winkler knew well. As he puts it, he had long wanted to stop being “such a bowl a jelly at my core.” When his kids were growing up, he says, they were like muffins you’re baking. “You stick the toothpick in and you know they’re not done yet. Well, I wasn’t done until my late 40s, my early 50s. I think I mourned the sadness of how long it took me, all that time wasted, all the power you give away to other people.”

“Hearing that makes me feel so much better,” I tell him.

“You know why?” he pauses for dramatic effect. “’Cause we’re all the same. To varying degrees, we are all the same.”

I ask Winkler if playing Fonzie helped him get “done” any sooner? I’m hoping that my motorcycling experience is helping me get done, too. That maybe I’m on the verge.

“Fonz did not help me to authenticate. He showed me what was possible to be. I’m not talking about motorcycles, snapping fingers, that stuff, just walking your avenue through the world.” Playing the Fonzie character while still knowing he wasn’t as authentic to his core as he’d like to be was a frustrating experience he says. “Because I was still living with the worry while I was playing with the confidence.”

“But isn’t that how we learn to do anything in life?”

He agrees. “Then I’m luckier than anything in that I was able to play the character. People look for the metaphor of the character in order to get there. I was given it.”

For me, perhaps the motorcycle is the metaphor. It isn’t an act and the clothes aren’t a costume, but simply protective gear, not unlike the padded shorts I wore as a skateboarder. And because I know that truth to the depth of my being, and have never again since high school actively sought to appear sexual in my manner of dress, I can wear my black riding gear with no self-consciousness.

At least, that’s what I thought.

I was dressed in my leathers one day at the Harley dealership, looking at helmets and chatting with the guys working there. Quentin, the head of bike sales, introduced me to one of his burly, tattooed biker friend.

“You ride?” the friend asked, a bit surprised, probably wondering if I just sat on the back of some guy’s bike.

I nodded.

“She also runs marathons,” Quentin added, as if that explained the motorcycle thing.

The friend did what no one had done to me in decades — the slow up-and-down with his eyes, nodding approvingly. I could feel every inch of my thighs encased in leather as if lit up in neon.

“I can tell,” he said. “With legs like that, you could cut diamonds.”

I wanted to crawl under the nearest rock. I was so embarrassed I fumbled my words and then dropped my helmet — a huge no-no. I scrambled to leave as quickly as possible. Riding my bike home, I bawled under that helmet, so shamed by that moment of male ogling attention after years of actively avoiding it with mom-type jumpers and loose-fitting clothing.

I was able to identify the source of the shame and within a day or two to let it go. The sexual vibe given by the leathers, I decided, was a vibe others were adding, an identity I did not have to be categorized by. The safety equipment I wear is not meant to be your sexual fantasy, though out pop culture has framed it that way. If there was a female Fonzie, I reflected, she would totally blow off this guy’s hyper-sexualized read of my manner of dress.

And so I did, and in doing so, reclaimed a sense of my own sexuality and attractiveness. A few weeks later I allowed my 17-year-old daughter to pick out jeans for me a full size smaller than I usually wore. Soon, I was able to embody a bit of the teen girl I’d left behind all those years ago, the one who was a hybrid between the tomboy and the sex-kitten, but who could own both parts of herself.

When my son, away at college, called to ask me about the separation between his father and me, his question surprised me. “Mom,” he said, “did the motorcycle have anything to do with it?”

“No, of course not,” I replied, which was the truth. But not the whole truth. By embracing the part of me that had lain dormant all those years via the motorcycle, I had found myself again — a self my father did not want to meet, a self that hadn’t fit with my husband for at least a decade. My husband and I had grown so far apart, especially after I’d reclaimed my inner tomboy, that there was nothing left to connect us. And all the activities I’d undertaken — marathons, mountain climbing, etc.?

Henry Winkler puts his finger right on it. “Can I ask you a question?” he says. “Did all that activity fuel the separation?”

“Absolutely. It taught me what I needed to know: that if I could rally enough strength, enough courage, to do these things, I might have the courage to do what I desperately wanted and needed to do: to leave.”

In talking with Winkler about Fonzie’s authenticity, his voice becomes excited. “You know what it does?” he asks of claiming one’s self. “It frees you up and give you back so much of your life.  When you talk yourself down, and cut the negative off your bone with a bowie knife, that’s powerful. And then if you replace with a positive you walk taller, straighter, farther.”

So playing Fonzie helped Winkler get “done” by his late 40s, early 50s? That gives me hope.

“No, no, no!,” he practically shouts. “To be on the road to being done. I still have a molten chocolate center that is still gooey!”

Winkler sounds exhausted as our conversation winds down. “Wow!” he says. “I swear to you that I’ve had these thoughts in isolated boxes in the attic. I’ve never put them all together. Now I realize I don’t have the fucking slightest clue if I’m on the track but it seems right to me. What I’m saying seems right.”

After we hang up I realize that what I’m doing — I also don’t have the fucking slightest clue — but it seems right to me. I am working to embrace authenticity and all that comes with it, including the aura of loneliness that surrounded Fonzie. He may have been able to snap his fingers and have girls flock to him, he may have been friends with all the guys in town, but he was still a loner and an air of existential aloneness clung to him. Which, perhaps, is the price one pays for authenticity.

I’m grateful to Winkler for taking the time to talk with me and help me sort out my obsession. I can’t help wishing we could chat like that on a regular basis. Still, one sentence he used describing Fonzie stays with me long after. “Everyone seemed to believe that, if I knew him, he would have been my friend; he would have taken care of me.”

I guess that’s how I think of Winkler, and perhaps in a just-getting-started way, how I now think about myself. At the very least, I am learning to befriend myself, to approve of myself, to care for myself while continuing to care for those I love. I think, in maybe a tiny way, I am learning to be strong enough to risk being real.

¤

Excerpt from Harley and Me: Embracing Risk on the Road to a More Authentic Life by Bernadette Murphy. Counterpoint Press, May 2016.

 Lead photo by johnlivezy.com.

‘The Oxford English Dictionary’: A Great Read in Alphabetical Order and Otherwise

By  Edward Finegan

“Don’t you love the Oxford Dictionary” David Bowie exclaimed to an interviewer in 1999 — and, in tribute, added, “When I first read it, I thought it was a really really long poem about everything.” It is about everything — everything with a name — and it is really long. Nor is it a stretch to regard it as poetic: Shakespeare is the most frequently cited author of the OED’s illustrative quotations. David Bowie may not have read the whole OED, but a furniture mover named Ammon Shea recently did just that. He read all of its 21,730 pages — and judged it “a great read.” In the OED he found “all of the human emotions and experiences … just as they would be in any fine work of literature,” even if, as he wryly noted, in the OED those emotions and experiences “just happen to be alphabetized.”[1] Plainly, Bowie and Shea were blessed with a touch of onomatomania!

Other “onomatomaniacs” regularly grab the headlines. News outlets run stories about the word of the year, or WOTY, chosen by one organization or another. In January 2016, members of the American Dialect Society anointed they as their WOTY. Its utility as a gender-neutral singular pronoun for a known person — a substitute for the gendered pronouns he and she — won this 800-year-old humble pronoun that commendation! Besides simple words like they, the American Dialect Society accepts compounds and phrases as candidates and even hashtags and emojis. Last year the hashtag #blacklivesmatter won their vote, and two years earlier hashtag itself was the winner. If dictionaries are alphabetized repositories of words, we might ask what kinds of expression are eligible to appear in them. With the Oxford English Dictionary announcing revisions to its latest version every three months, we can address that question by reviewing recent additions.

About 500 updates were announced in late 2015 — expressions and senses added just in the preceding quarter: words like improvisor, locavore, phablet, subcommittee, and truther, along with compounds like attack ad, bankroller, commitment ceremony and commitment ring, exit interview and exit polling, firepit, fire hydrant, and fire sale, granny chic and granny gear, improvised explosive device and IED, location scout, strength training, and true believer. Among newly added phrases were fight fire with fire and be firing on all cylinders. Some updates captured expressions that had appeared only recently in print: locavore in 2005; phablet in 2010. While truther may seem novel, it’s been around for over a century, and bankroller dates to 1930, improvisor to 1830, and firepit to 1500. For a surprising number of updates, then, the OED is merely catching up. Dictionaries are linguistic laggards, not leaders!

Among recent “blends” added to the OED are autotune, bromance, photobomb, cybrarian, sext, sexploit, shockumentary, staycation, hacktivism, voluntourism, and twerk (a word since 1820, possibly blending twitch or twist and jerk); among compounds, Blu-ray, crowdfunding, pageview, stir-fry, tan line, tea partier, hoverboard, and the verb waterboard; among words derived by prefixing, declutter and retweet. More liberal now than in its first edition, the new OED contains foodie, gazillionaire, artsy, carb, trash talk, party animal, street cred, prenup, shopaholic and infoholic, app, McJob, studmuffin, LOL and OMG, shout-out, tighty-whities, wackadoodle, fashionista, schwag, blamestorming, selfie, 24-7, and about 8,000 other colloquial expressions. It also contains over two hundred “coarse slang” terms and senses, including dipshit, hump, Masshole, pissy, pole, screw, shag, and dozens that include the F-word. A 60-year-old euphemism itself, F-word first appeared in the OED only in 2008.

So how do editors decide what goes into the OED — and when? Well, the primary data upon which the OED relies for definitions and for tracing the evolution in a word’s meaning are real-life quotations. To nourish the first OED, volunteer readers around the world submitted slips of paper, each containing an illustrative quotation — a sentence with a single word underlined (and including details of its source). Today, via the Internet anyone anywhere can furnish quotations in response to editors’ appeals, and modern-day crowdsourcing provides the authoritative basis for OED definitions. Contributors tackle newspapers and diaries; specialist magazines (treating, say, jazz or pop culture) and journals (treating, say, medicine or astronomy); cook books, movie scripts — any venue where a vibrant English is in use. More than three million quotations breathe life into the OED, reflecting in words an evolving view of the world shaped for English-speakers by their adaptive language during the past thousand years. Beyond that, inquiries by people visiting the online dictionary — words typed into its search function — provide a heads-up about new and trending words that can indicate those missing from the dictionary. Editors may then seek published quotations containing previously unnoticed expressions or senses, and assess how widely they are used. Editors also mine other dictionaries — such as the Dictionary of American Regional English — to detect overlooked words.

Today, the vast resources of language on the Internet provide illustrative quotations that document a word’s meaning, origins, and utility. As a consequence of its reliance on real-world quotations, the OED is a descriptive dictionary — it illustrates and explains how English speakers actually use their language, and it doesn’t prescribe how editors — or anyone else — think they should use it. While many a language priss or fuss-pot may lambaste a dictionary that fails to prescribe, the OED prides itself on describing the living language and its history.

Despite an abundance of online language materials and mammoth computing power, lexicography — like language itself — remains a creative enterprise. Being a historical dictionary, the OED endeavors to document the development of English words from their beginnings to the present day. When the project was conceived in the mid-nineteenth century, its visionaries couldn’t imagine what labor and time their “New English Dictionary” would require. The first unbound “fascicle,” covering the letters A to Ant, was published in 1884, and by time the 128th — and final — fascicle appeared in 1928 the treatment of many words at the head of the alphabet had become outdated, and other words in widespread use were missing.

One famous example involves appendicitis. The word had first appeared in print in 1886, but OED editor James Murray excluded it: too erudite and rare. Then, in 1902, when the coronation of Edward VII was postponed to accommodate an attack of appendicitis, his subjects — and English speakers worldwide — were left to wonder what it was! Changed by World War I, the English language and the dictionary encapsulating it needed to reflect new realities, incorporating military and war terms and a wide range of cultural expressions, and a supplement appeared in 1933. Again, in 1957, following another world war and great cultural changes, work started on a new supplement, which appeared in four large tomes between 1972 and 1986. The second edition of the OED, incorporating the four-volumes, included a huge expansion of 20th-century terms, especially in science and technology, and far better coverage of English outside Britain. On a tour of the United States, R. W. Burchfield, the supplement’s editor, acknowledged that “The center of gravity for the English language is no longer Britain” and conceded that “American English is the greatest influence on English everywhere.”

English may be said to have started in the middle of the 5th century when Germanic tribes invaded Celtic-speaking Britain. Since that time, English speakers have come into contact with peoples speaking hundreds of languages, and as a consequence English has “borrowed” tens of thousands of words from scores of languages. Names of foods are among the most obvious borrowings. In cities around the world, ethnic restaurants familiarize English speakers with terms to spice up their wordhoard. As examples, miso, ramen, sashimi, shiitake, soy, sushi, tempura, teriyaki, tofu, and wasabi come from Japanese; kimchi from Korean; tahini, falafel, harissa, shawarma, tabbouleh, halal from Arabic; and dal, ghee, and chutney from Hindi. Reflecting various historical and cultural touchstones are other borrowings: from Korean, tae kwon do; from Arabic, alcohol, alcove, algebra, alkali, almanac (all beginning with the Arabic definite article), and mujahidin, hijab, loofah, fedayeen, jihad, medina, and intifada; from Hindi, jungle, rupee, raj, yoga, guru, veranda, cot, thug, sari, dinghy, bangle, cheetah, loot, chintz, sangha, ganja, gunny, and swami; and from Japanese, Zen, samurai, tsunami, kimono, tycoon, haiku, karate, rickshaw, shogun, geisha, judo and ju-jitsu, kamikaze, bonsai, kanji, ginkgo, karaoke, sumo, futon, koi, origami, kudzu, honcho, ninja — and over 500 more.

Visitors to the OED Online can readily discover that from American or Mexican Spanish come abalone, Apache, charro, Chicana and Chicano, coyote, gringo, hoosegow, and stampede (alongside food names like burrito, chilli, fajita, taco, and tamale). Given the prominence of Spanish-speaking communities in Los Angeles, it’s no accident that the Spanish word quinceañera first appeared in an English-language newspaper published in Van Nuys (in 1972). Los Angeles also has a significant Persian-speaking community, through whose language directly or indirectly have come ayatollah, baksheesh, bazaar, caravan, cummerbund, dervish, dinar, divan, khaki, kiosk, pashmina, seersucker, shah, sherbet, taffeta, and turban. From Hawaiian comes wiki (shortened from wikiwiki ‘quick quick’), while hickory, hominy, moccasin, skunk, sockeye, tepee, toboggan, tomahawk, wickiup, and woodchuck come directly or indirectly from Native American languages, as do place names like Illinois, Oklahoma, and Malibu.

Not all words have known origins, and OED Online makes it easy to identify posh, gizmo, honky-tonk, reggae, nifty, jalopy, bonkers, bozo, smidgen, boondoggle, pizzazz, barf, fuddy-duddy, and boffin as terms seemingly from nowhere. But such informal words aren’t the only ones that thwart etymologists: the origins of girl, big, dog, beach, and other core words also remain baffling.

In print dictionaries we rely on the alphabet to locate a word and its meaning, and the 21st-century OED Online remains alphabetical, with meanings organized chronologically (and by part of speech) within its entries. Alphabetically, abalone follows abalienation and desk follows desize, but there is no shared meaning within the pairs. Our discussion above peeked at words through the lenses of word type (blends and compounds) and language source (Persian and Hindi). Within language sources we discussed foods, a semantic category of words. Had it suited our purpose, we could have organized the discussion solely by categories of meaning: food (sushi, taco, kimchi, chutney), sport and recreation (tae kwan do, karate, sumo), combat (kamikaze, mujahidin, tomahawk), fabric (chintz, khaki, taffeta), and dress (cummerbund, sari, turban). Even a dictionary that lists meaning relationships like synonym (shut for close) and antonym (close for open) doesn’t allow meaning connections to be systematically pursued. Instead, the job of organizing words according to their meaning falls to a thesaurus, and despite Roget’s influential lead it’s a gigantic challenge to systematize meanings meaningfully.

To help in that endeavor, OED Online links to the Historical Thesaurus of the Oxford English Dictionary, published in 2009 after decades spent designing a suitable system other than the alphabet. In the end, the Historical Thesaurus organized words under three top-level categories of meaning — the external world, the mind, and society, each with subcategories and subcategories of subcategories. As an example, alongside the OED’s definition of Hollywood (“The American film industry, its characteristics and background; (also) a film produced in Hollywood”), a link to the thesaurus yields two kinds of information: the hierarchy categorizing this meaning of Hollywood (society > leisure > the arts > performance arts > cinematography …) and — in historical order — the words in the OED that share that meaning: filmland, Hollywood, Tinseltown, and la-la land. A monumental work itself, the Historical Thesaurus of the Oxford English Dictionary reorganizes all the OED’s words in accordance with their meaning.

Our discussion of the OED, citing so many categories of words, could not have been written using only a print edition customarily found in a library reading room. Online search capabilities were crucial. With links to the thesaurus and a fistful of search functions, OED visitors can access a vibrant language in a dynamic historical dictionary that remains alphabetical in its organization but invites exploration in a dozen alternative ways as well. With frequent announcements of revisions and with fascinating search options, OED Online is the most stimulating and informative window on the development of English vocabulary and, over the course of a millennium, the evolution of the notions, concepts, and meanings captured in English words. Beyond linguistic matters, today’s OED invites social, cultural, and historical exploration in ways hardly imagined before the 21st century. Visits to the OED, traveled along the alphabet or alternate routes, have the power to reshape how we organize our knowledge of the world through words: the Oxford English Dictionary is about everything — everything with a name!

[1] Reading the OED: One Man, One Year, 21,730 Pages (2008)

Edward Finegan is Professor of Linguistics and Law, Emeritus, at the University of Southern California.

This essay is connected to Hollywood is a Verb: Los Angeles Tackles the Oxford English Dictionary, a Library Foundation of Los Angeles project. The project will also host an unprecedented dual language English and Spanish spelling bee in the Mark Taper Auditorium of Downtown LA’s  historic Central Library this Saturday, March 19.

Image courtesy of the Library Foundation of Los Angeles.