Surviving - The Hebrew Way
Our words tell a story of who we want to be. They reveal, sometimes unintentionally, what matters most to us and how we portray ourselves to others.
Ivriot is a weekly newsletter that aims to make sense of the Hebrew language – one word at a time.
How did a Roman coat become an excuse in Hebrew ? Why do tomatoes and STD’s share the same linguistic root? What is hidden and what is public? And how does six millennia of Jewish political life find a foothold in every Falafel stand in Tel Aviv?
As the events of International Holocaust Remembrance Day draw to a close I can’t but think about the power of the names we gave those who had little power, but used the little they had to survive.
Hebrew has a choice when it comes to describing the indescribable, of how to label those who were caught in the black hole that is the Holocaust. The victims, those who were lost but not forgotten are called in Hebrew – קורבנות – KORBANOT. It is an interesting choice, borrowed from biblical Hebrew and referring to the sacrifices made in the temple.
KORBAN is a regular religious duty, commanded by God and tied to the annual calendar cycle. Though in modern Hebrew usage we apply that word to all victims, not just those of the Holocaust, it is worth asking: Why did modern Hebrew adopt a word that implies the lack of choice? A KORBAN in the Bible may be a lamb or goat, but certainly never a human being with their dual attributes of agency and dignity. If the victims of the Holocaust were sacrifices, then we must ask for what? Sacrifice is a transactional concept, and there is no escaping the crude suggestion that the state of Israel is the supposed ‘reward’.
The survivors are just as interesting. Hebrew can choose between SORED and NITZOL - שורד – ניצול. The main difference is that SORED is a simple active (PAAL) verb whereas NITZOL is a passive, NIFAL verb. By choosing a passive verb it seems as if Hebrew is implying a lack of agency on part of the survivors: the survivor is not the subject of an active process (“I survived”) but more akin to one who was saved – presumably by someone else. Nothing can be further from the truth. To come out alive from these camps took stamina, ingenuity, and creativity as well as a lot of willpower. But in Israel we attribute passivity to these survivors - אוד מוצל מאש - a charred log, saved from a fire. This phrase, taken from the book of Zakaria, was used o describe survivors of the Spanish inquisition and was then used to describe the Holocaust survivors. There is even a village founded by survivors called UDIM – charred logs. The verb convicts them of passivity and condemns them never to recover, Burnt logs cannot shake off the fire’s scars; they will carry them forever. We never gave them a chance to be whole people – they had to be the survivor of that fire forever.
I am a Jew and words are my weapon, my tool of trade – a first aid kit given to me somewhere far away many millennia ago. My words are my strength and my burden as they will never let me not remember all those who created that tool for my toil. As I am indebted to them, I ask: Which of the words they bequeathed should I use? And what do these words really represent?
Hebrew has compassion to offer, it is a poetic language full of love and nuance - I promise to show more of that side next week.
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Lo lamaditi ivrit achrai shloshim v-sheva shana b-aretz. Hazarti l-artzot habrit. Ani bgil shmonim vhamaysh karaga. Efschar lilmod katzat. Lo mistamshim hasafa b'macom.
I enjoyed that very much! Using the right words in our lives can make a difference between entering a promised land right away or having to wait for 40 years. Looking forward to next post!