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The varied life of a Hebrew-English translator

September 11, 2010 Leave a comment

By Dorothea Shefer-Vanson

Dorothea Shefer-Vanson

MEVASSERET ZION, Israel — I never intended to become a translator. It just happened. I first began translating after my daughter was born and I could no longer go out to work. My knowledge of Hebrew was minimal and I frequently had to use a dictionary, but with the passing years this was needed less and less. For a long time I worked from home as a free-lance translator from Hebrew to English, then in a paid position at Israel’s central bank, translating and editing its English-language publications.

As a free-lancer my work was very varied, ranging from novels of varying literary merit to academic articles and books. During that period I spent some years translating what eventually appeared in six volumes as  Selected Knesset Debates. These began with the pre-State People’s Council and the pre-Knesset Provisional Council of State, with their fascinating discussions about various aspects of founding the Jewish state. The project continued up to the Ninth Knesset in 1981 (the one sitting now is the Eighteenth), when the funds ran out.

Working on that project brought me into contact with one of the most affable and knowledgeable men I have ever met, Dr. Netanel Lorch. He had been Clerk of the Knesset for many years, as well as the author of several books on subjects relating to Israeli and modern European history. Every few weeks I would go to his house to collect a cardboard box containing another set of thick blue volumes–the Hebrew equivalent of Hansard–receive general guidelines from him about which debates (those of historical interest) and speakers (a representative selection) to focus on.

Then I would go home and delve into the enthralling world of Israel’s early years, with  its internal and external conflicts and its moments of triumph and disaster. In a debate about arms coming into Israel prior to the Sinai Campaign in 1956, Prime Minister Ben-Gurion quoted a poem by the ‘national poet,’ Natan Alterman, rather than reply directly to the question. I don’t think that sort of thing happens in the Knesset today. That project stretched my translating abilities to the limit, as well as giving me a rare insight into the rhetorical abilities of Israel’s founding fathers (and mothers).

Since retiring from the Bank of Israel I have slipped back into my previous free-lance role. It makes a change from the turgid prose of practitioners of ‘the dismal science,’ even though I occasionally find myself tackling that material too. Recently I was asked to translate the autobiography of someone who had lived through the pre-state period and Israel’s early days. He recounted his experiences in the Palmach, the pre-state fighting force, being trained in night-fighting by Orde Wingate and bringing clandestine immigrants to the country on ships in varying states of seaworthiness. One of these was the Exodus, which he commanded. I was asked to do this translation in haste as his 98-year-old widow was not in good health and, despite having lived in Israel for sixty years, was unable to read the Hebrew text. Just a month or two after submitting the translation I saw her obituary in the newspaper. I hope she managed to read the memoirs, or that someone had read them to her.

There is a lot to be said for working on a free-lance basis. You are free to take the morning off if you feel like it, or work late at night, if a deadline looms. However, there is also a lot to be said for the security of a steady job, a regular salary and a pension. I still haven’t made my mind up as to which I prefer, but I feel that my work has given me a unique perspective on Israel.

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Shefer-Vanson, a freelance writer and translator based in Mevasseret Zion, can be reached at dorothea@shefer.com This article initially appeared in the AJR Journal, published by the Association of Jewish Refugees in the United Kingdom.

Going to market in Jerusalem is a gender issue

August 26, 2010 Leave a comment

By Dorothea Shefer-Vanson

Dorothea Shefer-Vanson

MEVASSERET ZION, Israel — When I first moved to Israel, some forty years ago, there was one supermarket in Jerusalem, and perhaps a few more in Tel Aviv. My housekeeping requirements as a student were not very great, and I seem to remember my forays to the supermarket as rare occasions, requiring little more to be purchased than bread, milk and eggs. I lived on black coffee and chocolate biscuits, and ate proper meals only at the weekends, when kind relatives invited me for Friday night supper or Shabbat lunch.

After I got married and set up a household of my own things became more complicated. The corner grocery was the source of most of our purchases, and the procedure of going shopping was an arduous task. My limited Hebrew and the elderly shop-keeper’s non-existent English meant that I had to have a dictionary at hand or point to the items on the shelves, then watch with bated breath as he perched on a rickety step-ladder to get the items down for me. Then he would add up the cost, using pencil and paper, and before paying him I would do the same, or pretend to do so.

Much to my surprise, my husband insisted on buying all our fruit and vegetables, as well as basic foodstuffs such as rice, in Jerusalem’s Mahaneh Yehuda market. My surprise was doubtless confounded by the contrast with my father, whose only foray into shops was to buy flowers for my mother every Friday on his way home from the office. The idea of a man going shopping, and doing so in an open-air market to boot, was totally alien to me. My husband enjoyed this event, which evidently represented something of a weekly hunting expedition for him. I suspect that he would also indulge in a portion of falafel or a plate of humus at one or another of the well-known local eateries

My ignorance of male behavioural norms in the Middle East was understandable, considering my background. How could a girl brought up in London and born to parents originating from Germany be expected to know that in this part of the world women were traditionally expected to remain at home, while the outside world was a male preserve? And the open-air market was a male club, as it were, with cafes and restaurants where men would meet and exchange information, mainly about football and politics. To this day, incidentally, most of Jerusalem’s money-changers are to be found in or near the Mahaneh Yehuda market, although it is no longer largely a male preserve.

While women are no longer confined to the home, many men still choose to do the household shopping in the market. I have even been informed by an authoritative source that women don’t know how to choose good fruit and vegetables. It is true that in order to choose a watermelon one should pick it up, place it on one’s shoulder and knock it to test for the right resonance, and that is something for which strong biceps are required. It seems, however, that choosing tomatoes or cucumbers that are just right for a salad is also considered a masculine skill.

Be that as it may, the corner grocery stores have almost all disappeared, and these days a plethora of air-conditioned supermarkets and shopping malls vie for the patronage of shoppers, be they male or female. Even the open-air markets have been spruced up. Shopping in Israel is a very different experience today.

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Shefer-Vanson, a freelance writer and translator based in Mevasseret Zion, can be reached at dorothea@shefer.com This article initially appeared in the AJR Journal, published by the Association of Jewish Refugees in the United Kingdom.

Mobile phone prompts merger of Mendelsohn’s music with Rossini’s

June 29, 2010 Leave a comment

By Dorothea Shefer-Vanson

Dorothea Shefer-Vanson

JERUSALEM — The audience in the auditorium listened intently as the head of the one of the departments of the Music Academy gave an erudite analysis, with illustrations at the piano, of various aspects of Mendelsohn’s ‘Songs Without Words,’ which we were to hear later in the programme. Professor Assaf Zohar, a rotund figure whose lectures are always lively and fascinating, had just apologised for being unable to play the piano with his usual dexterity as he was still recovering from an injury to his hand – the worst thing that can happen to a musician. To my unprofessional ear, however, his demonstrations sounded as impeccable as ever.

The information elicited a sympathetic intake of breath from the audience, consisting of a cross-section of Jerusalem’s music-loving public. Just at that point the unmistakeable tones of Rossini’s William Tell overture reverberated through the auditorium. All heads turned in our direction as the lady sitting two seats away from me turned bright red and scrabbled frantically in her bag to find and silence the offender.

It took an unconsciably long time until the phone was found, and the righteous indignation of the audience soon turned to laughter as Professor Zohar expertly played the chords on the piano, then converted them into a version that Mendelsohn might have composed. Luckily for the lady concerned, the phone had not gone off during the actual concert, as that is enough to make any concert-goer’s hackles rise, and good humour could just as easily have turned into murderous intentions.

In the interval, when the subject was mentioned in passing, I tried to soothe the phone-owner’s guilt-ruffled feathers by saying that it could have happened to anyone, and that I myself had forgotten to turn my phone off (though had done so hastily after the person concerned had turned hers off).  This gave the lady sitting between us, whom I didn’t know from Eve, the opportunity to sound off about her abhorrence of mobile phones, and decision not to possess one, despite pressure from her family.

While there is no disputing the fact that the mobile phone has its uses, and there is no substitute for being able to make contact when one has missed a bus or plane or is stuck in a traffic jam and will be late for an appointment, the love affair between the average Israeli and his/her mobile phone is something beyond rational explanation.

‘You’ll never walk alone’ could be the slogan of the phone companies, as wherever one looks one seems to see people walking along the street, talking animatedly – generally with sweeping hand movements – as they do so.

Recent research has sounded the alarm regarding health hazards associated with mobile phone use, but as far as I can see nobody seems to be taking much notice. In the supermarket I see (and hear) men receiving instructions from their womenfolk at home or at work as they scan the fruit and vegetables, and on buses one can catch snatches of intriguing conversations. In Israel one has the added advantage of being able to exercise one’s knowledge of various languages, although so far Amharic remains a closed book to me, even when peppered with the occasional word in Hebrew. And of course in restaurants and cafés the mobile phone chatter is incessant and loud.

It is only inside the Israel Museum, where I volunteer as a Host, directing people to the exhibits they wish to see (and most of which are currently closed, awaiting the grand reopening in July), that I am privileged to politely remind visitors that talking on mobile phones is forbidden.

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Shefer-Vanson, a freelance writer and translator based in Mevasseret Zion, can be reached at dorothea@shefer.com This article initially appeared in the AJR Journal, published by the Association of Jewish Refugees in the United Kingdom.

Bereavement unites Palestinian and Israeli parents

May 28, 2010 1 comment

By Dorothea Shefer-Vanson

Dorothea Shefer-Vanson

MEVASSERET ZION, Israel –As a result of a chance encounter at Lod airport at the beginning of the year I met Robi Damelin, spokesperson for the Parents Circle – Bereaved Families Forum, the group uniting Israeli and Palestinian bereaved families in an effort to attain peace, reconciliation and tolerance.

Robi was struggling with a huge poster advertising an exhibition of cartoons about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict due to be held in London the following week. We helped her with her package, and as we were also on our way to London she invited us to attend the opening of the exhibition. 

Robi is obviously a woman of character. Born in South Africa, where she was involved in the struggle against apartheid, she immigrated to Israel as a young woman. After her son was killed by a sniper while in the IDF reserves she resolved not to let his death serve as a lever for stirring up calls for revenge, and was instrumental in bringing together bereaved families from both sides. In the course of her campaign to spread the message of conciliation she has traveled all over the world, speaking in synagogues, schools and even mosques, receiving a warm welcome wherever she goes.

The exhibition, which was curated by leading Israeli cartoonist, Michel Kishka, was hosted by St. Martin in the Fields church. The cartoons, most of them sharply critical of the impasse in the Middle East and the toll it has taken on human life, came from all over the world, though they all refrained from simply blaming one side or the other.

The Bereaved Families Forum, www.theparentscircle.org, which now numbers some 500 families, engages in educational activities to promote dialogue and understanding between the two communities through outreach to high schools on both sides, bi-national youth leaders’ seminars, an internet reconciliation programme and workshops and a phone line through which individuals can pick up the phone and talk to someone on ‘the other side.’ Since 2002 it has facilitated over one million phone calls between Palestinians and Israelis.

In addition, a group of Israeli and Palestinian bereaved women was established in 2006. It meets several times a year, bringing into the Forum many new female members who feel more at ease with ‘women only’ activities. The women cook and travel together, hold empowerment workshops and visit one another’s homes 

About one hundred and fifty people attended the opening of the exhibition, which was sponsored by the UK Friends of the Forum, World Vision and Christian Aid and has been displayed in New York, Spain, Italy and Israel, amongst others. Moving speeches were made by Robi and her Palestinian counterpart, Seham Abu Awad, as well as addresses by the vicar of St. Martin’s in the Fields and a rabbi. The vicar read out a message of support from the Archbishop of Canterbury, and the rabbi passed on the good wishes of the Chief Rabbi.

My favourite cartoon was one by South African cartoonist Jonathan Zapiro. It showed terrorists wearing face-masks and keffiyas, Israeli soldiers in tanks and soldiers from India and Pakistan beneath missiles all stopping whatever militant or military action they were engaged in to focus on a TV set and raise their arms as they all stood side by side shouting ‘Gooooal!’

The throng at the opening night inspected the cartoons, smiled at some and shook their heads at others. Everyone there was united in regretting the terrible waste of human life and resources that the conflict has produced. A calendar containing a selection of the cartoons as well as other literature went on sale and business was brisk, but the tragic bottom line is that the organization’s membership is still growing.

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Shefer-Vanson, a freelance writer and translator based in Mevasseret Zion, can be reached at dorothea@shefer.com This article initially appeared in the AJR Journal, published by the Association of Jewish Refugees in the United Kingdom.

For refugees, policies of host countries make all the difference

May 5, 2010 Leave a comment

By Dorothea Shefer-Vanson

Dorothea Shefer-Vanson

MEVASSERET ZION, Israel–“Refugees.” That word means many different things to many different people.

The readership of the magazine of the Association of Jewish Refugees (the British publication for which I also write)  is loosely defined as having once fallen into that category. By today, however, most of those who once sought refuge from a life-threatening situation have settled into the comfortable existence that their adopted homeland offers. Many have gone on to achieve great things, even garnering honours on the way, and both they and their host countries are to be congratulated for that.

Here in Israel the word refugees is immediately associated with those Arabs, defined today as Palestinians, who left their homes, whether voluntarily or forcibly, as a result of the fighting that erupted after the UN resolution of 1947 sanctioning the creation of a Jewish state in part of what is now Israel. It is common knowledge that those hostilities were instigated by a coalition of eight Arab countries determined to put an end to Israel’s very existence. Not long after those Palestinians left their homes, a roughly equivalent number of Jews living in Arab countries were forced to abandon their homes and businesses and flee for their lives. A large proportion of these made their way to the newly-created State. This occurred at a time when the core population of the country was tiny, causing considerable hardship to the entire nation.

Nonetheless, every effort was made to accommodate the newcomers, and today most of them and their descendants are well established and constitute an integral part of Israeli society. 

While Israel accepted and did its utmost to assimilate its Jewish refugees, the Arab countries refused to contemplate integrating their brethren, preferring to leave them stateless and homeless in order to perpetuate their plight and put pressure on the international community to solve their problem.

The UN established a special unit, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNWRA), in 1949 to help Palestinian refugees, bestowing refugee status on future descendants of the original refugees, thereby perpetuating the suffering of people who could quite easily have been absorbed in host Arab countries without further ado. This issue still besets any attempt to find a solution to the conflict in the Middle East. 

Now countries all over the world are facing a growing tide of people from disadvantaged parts of the globe seeking to gain entry into more prosperous countries which could offer them a better future. The Americans have built a barrier to prevent impoverished Mexicans from entering their country. Although England is protected by the Channel, it has still seen fit to demand that France control its coastal areas more vigorously to prevent refugees from Africa finding their way into the UK.    Spain, Italy and France patrol their coasts in a vain attempt to prevent refugees from entering.

Now that problem is confronting Israel, too. Refugees from Africa are prepared to endure the risks and hardships of traveling on foot across Egypt and the Sinai desert, as well as paying enormous sums to smugglers, to try and get into Israel. On a recent tour of the southern border area, Prime Minister Netanyahu was surprised to hear that about 500 Africans were managing to infiltrate into Israel each week. Media reports stressed that they could represent an economic, demographic and security threat, though this claim does not have a firm factual basis.

So once again Israel is confronted with a moral dilemma. Should it build a physical barrier to prevent any more African refugees entering Israel, or is it more appropriate for us as Jews to refer back to our own history of flight and persecution and offer shelter to those fleeing from a similar plight?

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Shefer-Vanson, a freelance writer and translator based in Mevasseret Zion, can be reached at dorothea@shefer.com This article initially appeared in the AJR Journal, published by the Association of Jewish Refugees in the United Kingdom.

How Israel avoided the global economic meltdown

April 7, 2010 Leave a comment

 

By Dorothea Shefer-Vanson

Dorothea Shefer-Vanson

MEVASSERET ZION, Israel–Been there, done that. Why was Israel not affected by the global economic crisis to the same extent as some other countries, specifically the US and the UK? It was probably due to a number of factors.

In the 1980s, due to a combination of ideological rigidity and economic mismanagement, Israel experienced galloping inflation. This was accompanied by a major banking crisis, triggered in part by the banks’ manipulation of their share prices. There are only five major banking groups in Israel, and just two of those are really large, so that they essentially operate as a cartel. In 1985 the government bailed out all the banks, i.e., nationalized them, in order to prevent the entire banking system from collapsing. Private assets and savings were frozen for several years, the local currency was devalued and the entire economy was revamped through the concerted efforts of the government, the Histadrut (National Federation of Labour), and the Employers’ Association. Most significantly, strict controls on banks’ activities were put in place, with particular reference to the Basle Banking Supervision Regulations.

Since then the socialist ideals that motivated Israel’s founding fathers and dominated its political and economic thinking have been gradually replaced by an awareness that in the long run the capitalist model has more to offer. Even the kibbutzim, the last stronghold of the socialist ethos, have been privatized to a great extent.

There are, of course, other factors at work. As a country with little or no natural resources, Israel has had to rely on its only comparative advantage, its people. Israeli brainpower has given the country high-tech and bio-tech industries that are considered among world leaders. In fact, one of Israel’s  foremost exports in recent years has been its start-up companies, which are often bought by foreign companies, thus bringing in large amounts of foreign exchange, enriching Israel’s treasury through taxation and creating a thin stratum of extremely wealthy people.

But ‘exits’ apart, there are other reasons for Israel’s relative immunity to the global crisis. Israel has no pretensions to being an international financial centre, it has focused on niche markets and its fiscal and monetary policies have been reasonably sensible. Thus, the budget deficit and government expenditure are kept low by law, and taxes are relatively high. There is an extensive welfare system, and anyone seeking a mortgage must provide adequate proof of payback ability. Government intervention in the currency and financial markets has been drastically reduced and funds are channeled more to R&D and less to propping up unsustainable industries.

Bankers’ bonuses exist in Israel, but a relatively small number of people are involved and in recent years there has been greater transparency in this regard. High-tech companies also hand out bonuses to employees, but no-one seems to begrudge these. The one public institution that pays its employees a decent wage, the Bank of Israel, comes under criticism for this but justifies it on the grounds that its employees are of a higher caliber than the average civil servant and that it has to compete with the banking sector, where wages are higher than average. It is only fair on my part to admit that, as a former employee of the Bank of Israel, I may be biased on this point.

There are still many aspects of the political system which are deleterious to attaining a healthy economy. These will continue to constitute a drain on Israel’s resources until the electoral system is changed to ease the stranglehold that pressure groups have on coalition governments. But unfortunately that is unlikely to happen in the foreseeable future.

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Shefer-Vanson is a freelance writer and interpreter based in Mevasseret Zion, Israel

Demonizing Israel

February 27, 2010 Leave a comment

By Dorothea Shefer-Vanson

MEVASSERET ZION, Israel–At a recent event entitled ‘Any Questions,’ organized by the British Zionist Federation and the Israel, Britain and Commonwealth Association,  a panel replied to questions submitted in advance by members of the 400-strong audience who had come to Jerusalem from all over Israel.

Most of the audience and the panel consisted of representatives of Israel’s English-speaking population. The attraction was the presence of the British Ambassador to Israel, Tom Phillips, on the panel. The questions, which were read out by Zionist Federation chairman, Andrew Balcombe, related to a variety of subjects which concern Israelis today. These included the negotiations for the return of the kidnapped soldier, Gilad Shalit, Iran’s nuclear ambitions, the attitude to and repercussions of the Goldstone Report and concern about the growing influence of NGOs both inside and outside Israel.

But the question which stirred up the most interest (and reactions from the audience) was the one which related to the growing groundswell of anti-Israel opinion among both the Jewish and the general public in the UK. Ambassador Tom Phillips, tried to play down this trend, citing the consistent support of the British government for Israel irrespective of which party is in power, the strong trade links between the two countries and England’s advocacy of a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestinian problem. Nevertheless, he could not deny that there was a constant and consistent process of denigrating, demonizing and delegitimising Israel in the international press, including that of Britain.

When the ambassador referred explicitly to ‘the occupied territories’ several audience members protested, while others tried to suppress the hecklers. Miri Eisin, former international media advisor to Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and a member of the panel, rebuked the protesters for failing to display the courtesy to the speaker that the situation required and order was quickly restored.

Ambassador Phillips expounded his view of what influences the tenor of opinion in the UK, noting that the British generally tend to support the underdog, and this is how they now perceive the Palestinians. This was in stark contrast to the general perception of the situation prior to the Six Day War in 1967, when the British public tended to sympathise with Israel. Now the David and Goliath situation is regarded as having been reversed, and the climate of opinion in Britain has shifted accordingly.

This reminded me of what a woman in the street said to me in London last summer, when a pro-Palestinian demonstration went past us. “What’s it all about?” I asked. “They just want their own country, dear,” she replied. Ah, if only things were that simple.

But to get back to the panel discussion. Replying to the question about the NGOs, Ambassador Phillips said that Israel should be proud of their activities, as they constitute proof of Israel’s openness and freedom of debate. He stated that he had visited Hebron as the guest of one of these and had been deeply impressed by the work they were doing in bringing information out into the open. He added that even if in some instances the information they provide is distorted by others and used for anti-Israel propaganda purposes their existence is nonetheless admirable.

Of course, no such discussion could end on a serious note, so we were treated to a final question about what each member of the panel would change in Israeli society. The overwhelming majority was in favour of improving the driving habits of the average Israeli. But let’s be realistic, that is not very likely to happen. However, as Ben Gurion once said, anyone in Israel who doesn’t believe in miracles isn’t a realist.

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Shefer-Vanson, a freelance writer and translator based in Mevasseret Zion, can be reached at dorothea@shefer.com .