Tuesday, August 6, 2013

A Surprising Thank-You

I was in Israel briefly last week, and a curious thing happened at Ben Gurion International Airport. I had a couple of slices of greasy pizza at the kosher Pizza Hut in the departures hall, and then took my refuse to a nearby garbage can. After I deposited and started back to collect my bag, I heard an electronic voice say, “Thank you!” I whirled around to see something that I had not noticed earlier: a light near the top of the can suggesting that this was no ordinary receptacle.

Then something occurred to me. Why, in the Jewish state, where the primary language is Hebrew, did this garbage can not say, “Todah rabbah,” or at the very least, “Todah”? Why, in the place where Eliezer Ben-Yehuda almost single-handedly brought an ancient, scholarly language back to life, to be spoken by poets and professors, custodians and car salesmen, did the programmers of this very friendly public-service device choose to have it speak English? Why could it not deliver its acknowledgment of responsibility in the language of the Patriarchs, Matriarchs, and Prophets? What would Eliezer think?

Certainly, one might make the argument that areas of an international airport are frequented by many who do not speak the local language, and so an English “thank you” would be more easily understood by a greater range of people. The choice was simply practical, and we Jews are fundamentally practical people.

But one might argue that this is indeed a lost opportunity for what people in my line of work often refer to as a “teachable moment.” If you travel to a country where the spoken language is not your mother tongue, and you fail to learn how to say “thank you,” then shame on you! Even in the departure hall at the airport it’s not too late to acquire a taste of a beautiful, ancient tongue. Do you suppose the French would tolerate an English-speaking garbage can?

Sure, it’s just a talking garbage can, and who cares? But there is a lesson here about the bittersweet reality of contemporary Israel. Thank God, Israel is no longer isolated, a few kibbutzim and archaeological sites cut off from the rest of the world by hostile neighbors. Israel now has a thoroughly global economy and thriving tourism. Although English and Arabic are both official languages of Israel, Hebrew is spoken by everybody (on my flight, I had the pleasure of translating English-language announcements into Hebrew for the Russian-born Israeli couple sitting next to me). But there is not the pressure today to speak only Hebrew as there was in the past; on the contrary, learning English is considered a primary educational goal for younger Israelis, and one sees ads for English language instruction all over Israel. Perhaps the garbage can is as much about teaching Israelis English as rewarding tourists for good behavior.

Ivri, dabber Ivrit” (“Jew, speak Hebrew”) was the Hebraist slogan of the early 20th century. Today, the miracle of Hebrew’s rebirth as a modern language complete, the fact that Israeli society can go along with international language trends speaks, in some sense, to the strength of Hebrew culture today. But I cannot help but wonder if the Jewish people have lost something greater - the pride in our holy tongue that has accompanied the building of the Jewish state.

Rabbi Seth Adelson
(Originally published in the Temple Israel Voice, Aug. 2, 2013.)

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