Author of "Embracing Auschwitz" and "Mensch•Marks: Life Lessons of a Human Rabbi - Wisdom for Untethered Times." Winner of the Rockower Award, the highest honor in Jewish journalism and 2019 Religion News Association Award for Excellence in Commentary. Musings of a rabbi, journalist, father, husband, poodle-owner, Red Sox fan and self-proclaimed mensch, taken from essays, columns, sermons and thin air. Writes regularly in the New York Jewish Week and Times of Israel.
Wednesday, February 1, 2023
Flexibility, fluidity and Fauda (Times of Israel)
Flexibility, fluidity and Fauda
There are six Hebrew words for peace, but not a single word for status quo, a time--tested method for preserving it
Like so many, I am addicted to the Israeli TV series Fauda, now playing internationally on Netflix. The fourth season does not disappoint, unless, that is, you are a strict tribal truther who refuses to to accept nuance and the common humanity even of sworn enemies, amidst the continually unfolding tragedy that is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This week on the ground in Israel, sadly life is imitating art, with new spasms of violence in Jenin and Jerusalem, with more undoubtedly to come.
For those whose perspectives have become ossified by the numbing pain, there is little tolerance for Fauda, a show that thrives on fluidity. Having binge-watched the new season this week, I came away amazed at how interchangeable the Jewish and Arab characters are, as they flow from language to language, often in mid-sentence, from tragedy to tragedy, from Jerusalem to Jenin, from Brussels to Beirut, from love to revenge and back to love again. The greatest misfortune is how the characters rarely see just how similar they are to those they are killing. It’s hardly a spoiler to announce that the terrible cycle is never broken, even as new generations are born. The births seem tragic, not hopeful, because there is little hope of surmounting the eternal, unending, unbending stuck-ness, a status quo borne of inertia rather than compromise.
But transcending a plot that is replete with tragedy, there is one glimmer of hope. This Israeli show that glides effortlessly from Arabic to Hebrew, from Beirut to Tel Aviv, is Netflix’s number one show in Lebanon and highly rated throughout the Arab world.
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Everyone is watching. and that counts for something. On some level, we’re all speaking the same language.
And that language is not Hebrew. Fauda is an Arabic term employed by Israelis, meaning chaos. But it’s not just any old chaos, otherwise the Hebrew term balagan, which connotes disarray, might have sufficed. But even that’s borrowed from Russian. And balagan doesn’t come close to conveying the deeper meaning of fauda, which implies that the mess resulted from a mess-ive failure.
A fauda requires not only an instant recalculation – and battlefield adaptation is something Israeli soldiers do very well. It also calls for an instinctive humility, the ability to overcome the barriers of ego and self criticize. Instantly. Israelis – and most of us – do not excel at the “We really blew it” part.
And so evidently, there is no Hebrew word for fauda.
With that in mind, I scanned the Hebrew front pages last week for other words that remain untranslated into the Holy Tongue.
Last Wednesday’s Ha’aretz has on the front page, both in Hebrew and in its English edition, two untranslated words that jump off the page.
First, the term status quo. The headline translates to “Netanyahu Promises Jordanian King to Preserve the Status Quo on the Temple Mount.”
It’s odd and a little disconcerting that there is no Hebrew term for status quo. The status quo on the Temple Mount has been sacrosanct since the Six-Day War, and it is under threat right now, as this article attests (and Jordan’s king fears). Preserving the status quo with regard to holy places enables the Muslim authorities to supervise worship while Israel maintains security while (usually) respecting the sanctity of the place for Muslims. That arrangement has allowed for an uneasy but stable peace to prevail for over half a century. By resolving not to resolve the conflict unilaterally, the parties allow the status quo to become a baseline for future negotiation – albeit an imperfect one – forged in compromise but durable enough to hold things in place until the time is right to address prevailing issues constructively and incrementally. That status quo is so important to Israel’s continued survival that it’s hard to believe there is no Hebrew word for it. There are six Hebrew words for peace, but not a single one for this time-tested method for preserving it.
Acceptance of the status quo has not only kept peace between Israel and Muslim authorities, but it has also allowed Israel to preserve its own fragile balance between religion and state among the Jewish population, particularly in areas of Shabbat and holiday observances, kashrut, family status, education and the military. So, for example, in some cities buses run on Shabbat and in some they don’t. Compromises were made back in the early years, and once that happened, things were kept basically the same, for the sake of peace. It was all about finding some middle ground that everyone could live with, even if no one was completely happy with the arrangement. At its best, status quo allows the pot to simmer just long enough for fresh ideas to germinate. It should not be a prescription for eternal ossification. In some cases adjustments to status quo policies need to be made for compelling moral reasons, especially regarding basic human rights, but allowing Jewish prayer atop the Temple Mount has never been cause to upset the status quo – until now.
Prime Minister Netanyahu traveled all the way to Jordan to assure King Abdullah that he would preserve the status quo. But will he? Watch out for what happens on Passover, when right wing extremists will undoubtedly try to stir the pot by sacrificing a goat in the shadow of Al Aqsa. It’s been tried before, just last year, in fact. The police have stopped these attempts in the past, But now the inmates are running the asylum. The police are supervised by Itamar Ben Gvir, the right wing zealot who has already made his first official visit atop the Mount, and the Temple Mount movement is planning for a robust return of Jews to the site. And this year, Passover, Easter and Ramadan all coincide. Circle the first week of April on your calendars and stock up on canned goods. Things could get very tense around the world.
Still, as with fauda, there is no Hebrew word for status quo.
And on the very same front page, another word lacks an authentic Hebrew translation.
In a story, about a transgender child being removed from a religious school because of parental pressure, you can see that the term transgender is also transliterated directly from English to Hebrew. There is no Hebrew word yet for “transgender,” just an English loanword, like טלפון, ג’ינס and ביי (telephone, jeans and bye) – and like fauda and status quo.
In this situation, though, I think I’d rather not see the Israeli language authorities take a crack at creating an organic Hebrew word for trans, considering that the best they’ve been able to do with LGBTQ is homo. I’m happy just keeping things as they are. Let English carry the load on this one.
The fact that the Hebrew language can’t handle gender fluidity, historical flexibility, (which maintaining the status quo requires), or personal reassessment, suggests that Judaism’s sacred language might have a problem with fluidity in general.
The Hebrew word for fluidity is נְזִילוּת (“n’zilut“), which comes from “nazal,” “to ooze.” There’s another word as well: זרימה, (“zrima,”), which comes from the word “zerem,” a biblical term for downpour (seePsalm 77:18). Somewhere in between those two words, in between the oozing and the gushing, between stagnation and revolution, there is a simple, flowing stream – a fluidity that recognizes that nothing is static and unchanging, not regarding gender nor ownership of sacred spaces. Because of that, we need to be respectful of people who pray in different ways, for whom the very same location might have a very different history – different but also holy.
Fluidity is a key to understanding how, over the coming few weeks, the Torah cycle takes us from the blood-soaked banks of the Nile to the rising and ebbing tides of the Red Sea, and from the depths of winter’s frost to the first oozing of sap on Tu B’Shevat.
In some ways, Israelis have always been very good at going with the flow. But with the current government’s approach to both the Temple Mount and LGBTQ, and so many other areas, there has been a considerable hardening of the arteries. That needs to change quickly. As Pharaoh discovered, nothing good comes from a hardened heart.
But Fauda is Netflix’s number-one show in Lebanon and a hit throughout the Arab world – and beyond. That portends a fluidity among the peoples of the world, and a recognition of our common humanity, that just might upend the tragic “statoos quo” some day.