tel aviv / berlin

It’s time to break this dry spell on the blog.  Let’s begin with some notes I jot­ted down on the plane back from a trip to Tel Aviv and Berlin a cou­ple of weeks ago.

For me, the anti­sym­met­ri­cal ideas of liv­ing in Ger­many or of liv­ing in Israel are equal­ly trou­bling.  In Israel, some­thing twists with­in when I see those fit high-school-look­ing girls, noses speck­led with freck­les, well­turned limbs hid­den by bag­gy mil­i­tary fatigues, loaded machine guns slung across their straight backs.  It’s sexy, and it’s hor­ri­fy­ing.  And to a native, of course, it’s mat­ter-of-fact, and it’s irri­tat­ing, a cliché, when for­eign­ers com­ment on it.


Then in Ger­many.  The Neues Muse­um, last of the Muse­um­sin­sel struc­tures to be rebuilt, an impres­sive archi­tec­tur­al project by David Chip­per­field.  His man­date was to reuse as much of the orig­i­nal mason­ry as pos­si­ble.  So the facades are pocked every­where with bul­let holes, rang­ing from the grape-sized gouges of small arms to the mel­on-sized craters of artillery shells.  This was the entire city in 1945.

When was such latent vio­lence pal­pa­ble in Amer­i­can cities?  In 1920s Chica­go, I’m sure. Per­haps it felt this way in Austin, Texas in the late 19th cen­tu­ry too, when the wide boule­vards that now con­vey SxSW hip­sters from one bar to the next were paved with noth­ing but brown dirt, and the cit­i­zens wore hol­stered revolvers on their belts, and the odd native Amer­i­can was eyed with the sus­pi­cion now afford­ed Arab work­ers.  The US, though young by Old World stan­dards, is far removed from the vio­lence of its for­ma­tive peri­od in a way that Ger­many and Israel aren’t.

OK, but I think I could live in Israel, if— and only if— I were in Tel Aviv.  And Ger­many could con­ceiv­ably work for me— but only in Berlin.  I real­ly like both of these cities.  They’re full of life, full of great design, full of a kind of hip­ness that frankly makes San Fran­cis­co— let alone Seat­tle— feel like the burbs.

Notwithstanding the above, some unflattering notes on the Hebrew language–

At its core Hebrew sounds prokary­ot­ic.  A rean­i­mat­ed Bib­li­cal rel­ic, the Juras­sic Park of lan­guages.  A blunt let­ter­ing with no low­er­case and noth­ing much in the way of vow­els, suit­able for a scroll or a crude­ly incised boul­der.  Cue flocks of sheep, scab­by nomadic shep­herds with knob­by knees and bony shanks.

Cur­sive Hebrew does show promise, and one sees it some­times on the black­boards of Tel Aviv’s fish restau­rants and cof­feeshops.  Like the uncial scripts that even­tu­al­ly led to the mod­ern mixed-case Roman let­ter­forms, it sim­pli­fies, human­izes, and adds nuance to the char­ac­ters.  It would be nice to see more of this.

But by and large, I find the typog­ra­phy hor­rif­ic, per­haps sec­ond only to the bru­tal­ly geo­met­ric Kore­an Hangul in ugli­ness.  Bad typog­ra­phy is one of the things that, in my view, lends a shab­by air to many urban scenes in Israel.  What­ev­er bru­tal God-of-Abra­ham, God-of-Isaac aes­thet­ic these block let­ters do have is cor­rupt­ed by the unhar­mo­nized intro­duc­tion of left-to-right Eng­lish words and Ara­bic numer­als, and the hap­haz­ard bor­row­ing of the ques­tion­mark, quote and com­ma.  These sym­bols work with Roman let­ters, and scan visu­al­ly left-to-right, cup­ping the pre­ced­ing sen­tence or phrase.  Stuck on the end (begin­ning?) of a Hebrew sen­tence, or lean­ing out from the end of a word, they look like ass.

It’s a mys­tery to me why they didn’t at least mir­ror these sym­bols across the y axis.  But bor­row­ing is the name of the game in the Israeli lan­guage.  Although I speak no Hebrew at all, nor any lan­guage near it on the lin­guis­tic tree, I found myself almost able to fol­low some busi­ness­men at the next table in a café, because they made such promis­cu­ous use of loan­words and ono­matopoeia (not to men­tion sug­ges­tive hand ges­tures).  With their “par­tee” and their “sho biznes” and their “geemeek” and their “non eevent”, they’re like the anti-French.

Based on these obser­va­tions, I have an alter­na­tive the­o­ry of kaf­fei hafukh, which trans­lates to “upside-down cof­fee” and is the term used for cap­puc­ci­no in Israel.  I think the hafukh is ono­matopoeia for the sound of milk froth­ing.  Even if there’s a more struc­tur­al mean­ing, the Israelis are suck­ers for sound.  You can just tell when you lis­ten to them in con­ver­sa­tion (some­thing they nev­er do with each oth­er).  blablaBLA, blablaBLA, har­mo­niz­ing with one anoth­er always in triple meter, anapest that’s called, fit­ting­ly enough.

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