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Jewish Journal

Hollywood gets lessons in the nuances of Hebrew

by Etgar Keret

January 31, 2008 | 7:00 pm

Some time ago, I was invited to a dinner here in Israel attended by a delegation of film people from Los Angeles. During the meal, one successful documentary director asked me a question: Could I think of any Hebrew words that have no equivalent in English?

An excellent question, and even though I was sure there were many such words, the only two I could think of actually do have English equivalents, except that in Hebrew -- or maybe it would be more accurate to say "in Israeli" -- they carry completely different values.

The first is balagan, which came into Hebrew from Yiddish.

Balagan means "total chaos." But this word is unique, because contrary to the implied negative value the concept has in other languages, the subtext of balagan is positive. True, that positiveness is not overt -- a bit like a proud parent trying to hide a smile from his mischief-making son -- but it is completely there. But chaos for a society that is itself full of balagan is nothing less than proof of vitality and passion. In a place where people push and shove in line, where children insist on drawing on walls and not on paper, where a briefcase holds stained income tax reports lying between a pastrami sandwich and a piece of graph paper with the beginnings of a poem on it, that's where you'll find human liberty, the liberty that both Yiddish and Hebrew have always held sacred.

The second word that came to mind was dugree, a word taken from Arabic that means "direct, honest talk." Just like chaos, directness is a valued attribute in Israeli society. So dugree people will always tell you that you've gotten fat, that your wife is ugly, that the film you made is so-so, and -- come to think of it -- they never did manage to get through any of your books. They don't do it because they have a need to enlighten you, but because for them saying anything else would be hypocritical. Of course, they know they could just smile and save you from some of that honesty, but then they wouldn't be completely dugree. And so, genuinely dugree people will call you two hours after you've said goodbye and add that in all the excitement, they forgot to mention that your son seems underdeveloped for his age and your skin looks terrible.

If the concept of balagan only slightly aroused the intellectual curiosity of the visitors from Los Angeles, the concept of dugree managed to get their full attention. They tried to think of a time when someone came up to them after a screening with a negative comment and couldn't. "Maybe your movies were simply great," one of the Israeli hosts said, trying to pay an extremely non-dugree compliment.

"No," said the director, "that's not it. It's just that in L.A., when a film isn't good, your colleagues come over and say things like, 'It was so brave of you to do this film,' or 'I really liked the dog.'"

"And if the film is really terrible?" I asked. "If someone suffered through every frame of it?"

"Oh," said a producer. "In that case, chances are he'll come over wearing a big, toothy smile and say, 'Good for you.'"

In the taxi on the way back from dinner, I pictured the toothy smiles of all the people who said how much they loved my book during that fabulous book tour on the West Coast in 2001. Now, when I think about it, many of them did tell me how brave I was to write that book, and there'd been a tall, thin woman from Berkeley who shook my hand warmly and said that she really loved the dog. In retrospect -- to be dugree with myself -- that should have made me suspicious right then because there was no dog in the book. On a more positive note, it may have taken me six years, but I did finally get it. Good for me.

Etgar Keret is the author of "The Bus Driver Who Wanted to Be God," "The Nimrod Flipout" and "Missing Kissinger."

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