Category Archives: Whimsical Musings

Classical Arts Showcase

If, like me, you have reached a stage in life when you are not as mobile as you used to be and are no longer able to go to concerts, operas or other performances regularly, there is no reason to mourn. You can still enjoy these shows at home. There is a channel on your television called Classical Arts Showcase. It is the brainchild of the Lloyd E. Rigler and Lawrence E. Deutsch Foundation and can give you up to  three hours a day of high-quality, commercial-free entertainment.

 

Luciano Pavarotti

 

There is no announced program, so you are just as likely to see a clip of the Red Army Chorus belting out “Moscow Nights” or “Ochy Chernye” as a puppet show of Peter and the Wolf complete with duck, cat and grumpy grandfather marching to the zoo with a captured wolf.

 

Charlie Chaplin

Everything comes as a surprise. Perhaps it will be Charlie Chaplin in Modern Times struggling with boxes on a conveyor belt  or a parade of  dominoes strutting to the music of George Bizet. Or it is just as likely to be a musical conversation with a singing Kathleen Battle resplendent in a gorgeous red dress and Wynton Marsalis and his glorious trumpet.

 

Wynton Marsalis

Sometimes you will watch interviews with obscure German actresses you have never heard of  or discover a rest home for retired Italian opera singers.

 

Herbert von Karajan

Symphony orchestras and their various conductors offer many insights. Some conductors like Bruno Walter or Herbert von Karajan are very formal; others like Zubin Mehta or Leonard Bernstein dance and sway exuberantly. All conduct with their whole bodies and facial expressions.

It is also fascinating to watch soloists’ fingers running on the piano or flute, or harp, or to observe violin bows rising and falling in unison.  Because some of the performances go way back in time, you can note in passing that many orchestras like the Berlin and Vienna Philarmonics did not  include women until recently.

You can also admire the dexterity and improvisation of the Modern Jazz Quarter or enjoy a rendition of “Bess, you is my woman now,” from George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess.

This is not to say that every clip will always please you. You could happen on a boring “Pas de Deux” where the male dancer does nothing but twirl  the ballerina or hold up her leg and want to tell him: “Let her hold up her own leg and start running, pirouetting and doing entrechats.”

I also get tired of Russian classical ballet with stiff tutus  and of Pavlova and the dying swan.

And I turn off  or mute Richard Wagner or Richard Strauss’ Ariadne. Everyone has favorite tiresome performances

Renee Flemming

But where else are you likely to see artists who are no longer with us like Pavarotti or a close up of Renee Flemming’s face  singing Ave Maria or Vladimir Horowitz being given a standing ovation in Moscow?

All you need is  a television with a sharp image and good sound and a comfortable chair  to savor and enjoy.

 



Loss and Longing

goethe

Editors note. We are starting today with a note that came from Simone after she had submitted this new post. Something about how she is thinking….

“The way this one was born is sort of typical of how I start associating. I had watched a short documentary on Bela Bartok where he stood forlorn on a ship’s deck gazing mournfully at the sight of approaching New York. His distress was palpable. Then the song Knowest Thou the Land came into my head.”

LOSS AND LONGING

Knowest thou the land where lemon flowers bloom
The land of golden fruit and crimson roses
Where the breeze is fresh and birds fly in the night
There, father let us fare.

Goethe’s poem:”Kennst du das Land” inspired many artists, most notably Amboise Thomas who in his opera “Mignon” gives it a haunting melody. When Mignon sings “Connais tu le pays” you cannot help but follow her to her Paradise Lost. Forcefully removed from an idealized land, she conjures it as if in a trance.
This yearning for a golden past is also present in Verdi’s opera Nabuco. The Jewish People forced into exile to Babylon sing “Va Pensiero,” a lament of nostalgia for the sights and smells and feel of their far away land.

Throughout history, in ancient Greece and Rome, exile was a form of punishment imposed on enemies, non- conformists and political opponents. Napoleon was sent to Elba and then to St Helena, Victor Hugo to Guernsey and Solzhenitzyn was exiled from the Soviet Union along with many other “enemies of the regime.”

There is a category of writers who flourished in the Austro- Hungarian Empire and then also in Vienna between the two world wars, who have experienced a sense of dislocation when their safe and happy past disappeared in the distance. Stefan Zweig describes this feeling very well…a feeling of missing the happiness you once had, a feeling associated with a place and with days gone forever, of the world of yesterday. He calls the period before World War I:the golden age of security.

Many Austrian Jews who thought they had assimilated, were bitterly disappointed in the 1930’s when they realized they had been living in a fool’s paradise. They felt themselves forcibly expelled into a hostile world. The composer Bela Bartok was intimately tied to the land where he lived, to its folklore and music. He had transcribed 6,000 folk songs of Slovak, Romanian and Transylvanian origin. He left his home for the United States during World War II and found himself a man without a country. He felt unappreciated and struggled with sickness and poverty. Caught in the storm, he never recovered.

We know many other exiles from that lost world:
Mahler, Freud, Klimt, Kafka, Koestler. Some survived better than others but all had lost an essential part of themselves.

Not every plant can successfully be transplanted. Some roots are too deep and some trees are too well adapted to their terrain to thrive elsewhere. Similarly, some people are too embedded in their milieu to uproot successfully. Zweig and Koestler both committed suicide, torn from their connections and unable to face the unknown.

Today many exiles flee from war-torn countries. Their fate is even worse because of the brutality of their forced exodus and the physical dangers they face. They cannot even allow themselves the luxury of giving voice to their distress. They are too preoccupied with day-to-day and moment-to-moment survival.



Strength in Symmetry (part 1)

mandala1mandala2mandala3Does Nature love symmetry? Apparently so.

Animals maximize their survival chances because any departure from symmetry affects locomotion. If one leg is shorter than the other you limp and become prey to predators. Birds could not fly nor fish swim if they were not evenly balanced. Their equilibrium would be affected.

And symmetry breeds success…I understand that perfect symmetry helps horses win races.

So most animals are bilaterally symmetrical and their bodies are divided equally into left and right sides. There are always exceptions. (sponges have an asymmetrical body plan).

As I look out at the trees from my window, I notice that they too have approximate symmetry even though they are not going anywhere. Pines are perfectly balanced but in most trees the two sides do not match exactly, branches may protrude. But I imagine that they too are shaped so that they do not topple over.

Of course fruit and flowers have perfect radial symmetry as we can see if we cut an apple or an orange in half. Bees are said to have imperfect vision but they are drawn to flowers because of their symmetry. So this seems like an evolutionary advantage. And the fruit is probably prevented from falling prematurely because its weight is even.

Our bodies are also approximately symmetrical. We too have two legs, hands, ears etc. But then why do we have only one heart, liver and pancreas? Why do we favor one hand over the other? (and why is it usually the right hand?)

In arguments we like to assign sides by saying: on the one hand, on the other hand, yes or no, true or false, something or nothing. So if we were a millipede would we see one thousand alternatives to every question?

(next time, more symmetrical thinking)



Better or Worse?

Simone & Daughter Dina

Simone & Daughter Dina

Recently my daughter Dina and I were talking about how some things had improved in our lifetimes and how some had gotten worse. Were things better in the “olden days” or today? So we made lists. Some changes are for the better – such as opportunities for women and some things have gotten worse – political discourse seems out of control. Some changes are more important than others, but it was fun to try to list them – major and minor both.

Simone: I love Google and the Internet! In my work as a librarian I specialized in computer information retrieval. People filled out search request forms and we had to find the information for them using an algorithm designed to give them as comprehensive a listing as possible and at the same time eliminating extraneous information. The end product was usually a bibliography, which is a list of sources. Sometimes it included a digest. Rarely was it a full-text result.

Google finds the actual information and seems to have an in-built intuition of what is wanted. We have designed it to reach beyond what we can do, as an extension to our senses and capabilities, just like a microscope or a telescope can look further and deeper. A caveat: We still have to assess the reliability of the source of information. Wikipedia itself warns us to sometimes look further. In general, though it’s two thumbs up for Google.

Dina: Women’s lives have been vastly improved by the development of the birth control pill, which gives women a lot of control over their own bodies and reduces unwanted pregnancies.

And look at the improvements in medicine including vaccinations. No longer are chicken pox, mumps, measles, and rubella (German measles) a normal part of childhood. Other conditions have been eradicated by the vaccines for Hepatitis A and B, shingles, pneumonia, and flu. Cancer is no longer an automatic death sentence.

Simone: But where have all the doctors gone? In my childhood the slightest ailment, a sore throat, an earache, caused a doctor to materialize. Equipped with a big smile and a black bag of miraculous cures, he would touch, probe and declare reassuringly that everything will be much better “tomorrow.” Now health care is a cumbersome bureaucracy. It takes a long time to get a doctor’s appointment. So instead you go to an emergency service where you are placed on a conveyor belt and moved from one station to another, with repeat questions and no real diagnosis. You also get a big bill afterwards. In France, doctors still make house calls at a modest price.

Dina: We both feel that one thing that has deteriorated is service! We are both bothered when work that used to be done by trained employees has now been turned over to us. The first thing to go was the gas station attendant. If you are in a hurry, nicely dressed, tired, ill or old, you are out of luck. How do “little old ladies” put gas in their cars?

In supermarkets, we still have a choice between regular check-out and “self-service” check-out.” How long will this choice last? Most of us do not know the code for Belgian endive.

Worse still are the airlines. No longer does the nice clerk behind the counter print out a boarding pass. You are now expected to do this yourself at a “self-service” computer even if you are holding a squirming two-year old, keeping track of all your luggage, or don’t know English.

Simone: There are several establishments I use often that have greatly reduced their services: The Post Office and the Banks have cut back on their employees. The result is empty service windows and long lines.
At the Public Library, you can now check in your books, pick up your holds and check out without any human interaction. I must admit that after an initial period of resentment I am now used to this but I miss the niceties of personal contact.
The telephone tree is an abomination the likes of which has seldom been seen. Its originator should be shot on sight without benefit of a trial. Who in their right senses would replace contact with a warm human voice with even a modicum of intelligence, by prearranged messages that have no relation to your information needed? It is a dehumanizing experience.

Dina and Simone: We both love email!

Simone: Let me end with a recollection from my childhood in Lebanon. It wasn’t considered a luxury at the time, but I certainly miss it now…Even though our family was not wealthy, we did not buy clothes in stores. Instead we had a seamstress who had our measurements. What we provided was material and patterns and she sewed clothes to our requirements, adjusting hems with pins while we pivoted this way and that. At the time, I longed for store-bought clothes not realizing that garments made to order would be a luxury some day.

What do you think? Which things were better during your childhood and which ones are better now?

A note from the Editor…Your comments on this blog are like a nourishing rain. You are encouraged to put in your two-cents worth. -ed.



Musicians Without Borders

George Frederic Handel

George Frederic Handel

Yo Yo Ma

Yo Yo Ma

Before “globalization” people mostly lived and died in their own little corner of the world, only dimly aware of famine or pestilence elsewhere. But there always existed a class of wandering minstrels, happy to make music wherever they went. Musicians speak a universal language and can be understood and appreciated in many diverse lands. These musicians run the gamut from energetic and talented street musicians to some of the more illustrious musical wanderers I will mention here.

Jean Baptiste Lully was born Giovanni Battista Lulli in Florence in 1632. He was a dancer, guitarist and violinist. At age 14 he moved to France at the invitation of the young Louis XIV. There he wrote court ballets, collaborated with Moliere (He wrote the music for Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme.) and became director of the Royal Opera.
He died of gangrene in 1687 having struck his toe with the big stick he used for conducting.

Luigi Boccherini (1743 -1805) was a composer and cellist born in Lucca, Italy. His father was a cellist too. They were both employed as court musicians in Vienna. In 1770 he was invited to the court of Charles III in Madrid. There he lived, married and composed. He was inspired by Spanish music, especially the fandango, wrote elegant chamber music and developed the string quintet.

George Frederic Handel (1685-1759), born in Thuringia, Germany traveled to Hamburg where he became a violinist at the Opera. He later went to Italy at the invitation of Prince Ferdinando de Medici. When in Hanover, he met George Louis who was later to become King George I of England and who took a liking to him and enticed him to England. It was for George I that he wrote the famous and hugely successful Water Music which was performed on barges on the Thames. I like to think of those two expatriates conversing in German since neither was fluent in English. After the death of George I, Handel composed large scale anthems for the coronation of King George II and his consort Caroline, an occasion of great magnificence.

Jacques (born Jacob) Offenbach 1819-1880 was born in Cologne, Germany. He studied at the Paris Conservatory and remained in France for his entire musical career. Paris at that time offered a more favorable atmosphere for European Jews. Offenbach was a violinist and cellist and played in the Opera Comique Orchestra. He then shifted to composing operettas and opened his own theater Les Bouffes Parisiens. He is remembered mostly for Orpheus in the Underworld, La Belle Helene and his last unfinished work Les Contes d’Hoffman.

Yo Yo Ma (1955- ) is a Chinese-American cellist born in Paris to parents who were both musicians. He spent his school years in New York. Ma was a child prodigy and started performing at age five. Although we think of him in the context of classical music, he has been called “omnivorous” by critics because of his eclectic repertoire. He is interested in American bluegrass, Argentinian tango, Chinese melodies and Brazilian music. Ma was invited to the White House by several Presidents. He and Itzhak Perlman both performed at President Obama’s 1st Inauguration Ceremony.

May these wonderful artists continue to wander among us.

(Editor’s note….Simone has several thousand loyal followers and readers and we are very proud of that. But let me take this opportunity to ask you to respond and comment on her blogs. Her thoughts expand your world and your response will greatly expand hers. Just click below on “leave a comment”)



How We Learn #3 – Science, Humans and The Infinite

Previously I mentioned that in my school days the sciences were taught so as to never kindle any interest in me. Our teachers seemed more interested in laying traps (Gotcha!) than in imparting knowledge. I thought of physics and chemistry as bitter-tasting medicine that had to be swallowed. No more.

Nowadays sciences which were strictly separate seem to have coalesced and melded together. Jared Diamond’s “Guns, Germs and Steel” combines anthropology, history and geography. Diamond links the human trajectory through time and space to climate, terrain , invasions, scientific discoveries and other unpredictable elements.

Evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins is an Oxford Professor of Public Understanding of Science and an excellent teacher with a gift for making the esoteric comprehensible. I like his proposition that we humans are only the disposable wrapping that allows our genes to travel on without us. I think that is what immortality really is.

Neil DeGrasse Tyson is an astrophysicist and director of the Hayden Planetarium at the Natural History Museum in New York. He follows in the footsteps of Carl Sagan whose television show Cosmos helped to debunk the idea that we humans are at the center of the universe. Sagan showed that we and our planet are but a tiny dot in the immensity of the cosmos. Tyson notices children’s natural curiosity about the world and observes how it can be drummed out of them by making them adhere to a structured way of learning. This famous scientist encourages daydreaming.

I now leave the familiar sphere altogether with Physicist Lisa Randall. She explains dark and light matter, black holes and introduces us to the Large Hadron Collider which reenacts the Big Bang by accelerating particles and simulating the birth of the Universe. She also explains the recent discovery of Higgs-Boson, an elementary particle that gives other particles their mass and is sometimes called the God Particle. In her latest book she explains how meteorites deposited the seeds of life on earth, and how the dinosaurs disappeared making possible the birth of mammals.

My mind is stretched to its outer limits. Dizziness is imminent as I am desperately trying to hold on to these new ideas. I shall stop with this slippery and elusive knowledge before it totally eludes my grasp.

In Part 4 I will attempt to understand time/space and dwell on our very limited senses.



How We Learn #1

Schulhaus

On the whole, I think I had a good education. When I was growing up, I lived in Beirut, Lebanon which was then under a French Mandate giving it a status that was slightly higher than a colony but not by much.

The French considered it their duty to educate those of us who did not have the good fortune to be born French so they established “lycees” in all their dominions. A lycee is a combination middle school, high school and part college.

Each lycee throughout France had the same curriculum as all the other schools in France. A centralized and uniform system rigidly controlled everything. This meant that early grade history books invariably started with “Our ancestors the Gauls….” Whether our real ancestors were Phoenicians or Israelites was beside the point.

Our school was called “Mission Laique Francaise” which translates as “French Secular Mission” so you might say that our teachers were secular priests spreading culture and civilization instead of religion. Besides imparting knowledge in the sciences and the humanities, they taught us how to think rationally and ask questions. We did not have “true or false” tests but had to write essays in most topics giving reasons for our point of view based of course on our mastery and interpretation of the facts. This was an excellent preparation for higher education and I am grateful to have had the opportunity.

In other respects there were serious deficiencies in the mode of teaching our school espoused. Many of you have heard about the English “public schools” where teachers not only inflicted corporal punishment but mocked, ridiculed and exposed pupils to humiliation. I see now with hindsight that some of that sadism was also present in our own teachers. For instance our graded assignments were always returned to us in class publicly following a system of “worst first” and with sarcastic comments. The longer your name was not called the more relieved you felt. The best assignments were handed out last.

Our physics and chemistry teacher had a sixth sense for sensing who had not prepared the homework and unerringly homed in on those unfortunates with unanswerable questions seemingly enjoying embarrassing them in front of the class. I guess the concept of self-esteem had not yet been invented.

Editor’s note: More musings on education to come in the next post. Please volunteer your own experiences in the comments section and we will publish them.



It Runs in the Family

Johann Sebastian Bach

Johann Sebastian Bach

Bach with 3 of his children

Bach with 3 of his children

The Bach musical dynasty lasted for 200 years and is therefore at the heart of the question…”Is musical excellence inherited? Is there a musical brain?”

I don’t know whether we are still debating the nature/nurture conundrum or if it is now the nature plus nurture hypothesis. Knowing as we do that nature and nurture work in tandem and form an alliance that goes back as far as the womb, are there instances, like in the musical realm, where one plays the major role? In other words, is musical talent built into the genes?

What makes this question difficult to answer is that in the great musical families the milieu was very propitious for nurturing; young members were taught by the older ones and found it natural to follow in their footsteps. There were great artisanal musicians just as there were families of carpenters and of millers whose craft was handed down from fathers to sons. For example, the French Baroque composer Francois Couperin was a descendant of 200 years of Couperin organists.

Johann Sebastian Bach was the best known of fifty eminent musicians and composers named Bach. In the town of Erfurt, Germany all musicians were referred to as Bachs. Four of his 20 children (by several wives) composed music which is still being performed today: Carl Philipp Emmanuel was the most famous of his sons. Johann Christian Bach (known as the London Bach) was a contemporary of Haydn and Mozart. Johann Christoph Friederich and Wilhelm Friedman were prolific Bach family composers.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was trained by his composer father and soon eclipsed him. Leopold Mozart is now mostly remembered for his Toy symphony which is still being played occasionally.

Johann Strauss (The Elder) of Vienna (1804-1849) wrote waltzes, polkas and other dances and was the father of famous violinists. His son Johann Strauss II (the Younger) was the Waltz King and best known for The Blue Danube and the operetta Die Fledermaus. Joseph Strauss played in the family orchestra and composed dances and marches. The New Year’s Day concert in Vienna , a lavish affair, each year features the music of all three Strausses.

Alessandro Scarlatti, the Italian Baroque composer, produced operas and cantatas. His son Domenico was even more famous and bridged the Baroque and Classical styles of music.

Pepe Romero (1944-) the classical flamenco guitarist founded a quartet with his father and his two brothers Celin and Angel. He studied with his father Celodonio and made his debut at age 7. The composer Rodrigo wrote the work “Concierto para una Fiesta” for them.

Wynton Marsalis belongs to a family of jazz musicians from New Orleans. His father Ellis was his mentor and, with Wynton’s brothers, (Branford, Delfeayo and Jason) started a “Jazz Renaissance”. Wynton studied both jazz and classical music and excels in both.

So there we have a variety of musical families with a rich environment and plenty of guidance, nurturing and role models. And we are back to the question: Does practice make perfect or does musical ability run in the family?

And back to the usual identical twin studies. Experiments show that a twin who practices more than his brother (her sister) does not achieve more. No amount of lessons will turn a tone deaf child or one who does not process sound or detect differences in pitch, melody or rhythm into a Mozart. Without manual dexterity you will not become a good pianist. In other words success is not just a matter of determination.

This does not mean that if you have the talent you do not need to practice. And so, although musical ability is mostly inherited, and talent does run in families, the families who possess it also have the desire and determination to cultivate it.



The Joys of Group Travel

Pope John Paul II And Pope John XXIII Are Declared Saints During A Vatican Mass

Group traveling seems like such an attractive solution when you have reached a certain age and are happy to delegate all the burdensome aspects of a trip. Isn’t it nice when someone else takes care of bookings, transfers, organized visits and other tiresome details? Sounds good, right? The trouble is that I never learned the trick of sticking with my party and have accidentally strayed more times than I can count. It seems that I don’t care for being herded along in a group. It feels like being tied to a long rope like a kindergartner on an excursion. So I somehow manage to detach myself. (by the way, I also don’t like name tags.)

The first time I strayed was in 1967, The American Library Association had organized a four-island tour to Hawaii for which I signed up. On Maui, our bus stopped for lunch at the Sheraton. I was so enchanted by the beach that I decided to go for a quick swim after eating.
Unfortunately the bus left without me. The hotel found out where it was and I had to take a taxi to rejoin my companions. Lucky they hadn’t left for the next island!

Another time was on a trip to Tahiti with my daughter. We were on a cruise ship. One day they scheduled a bus trip to some attraction (I forget what it was) and on our first stop we were having such a good time admiring the display of crafts that we did not notice the bus continuing without us. We decided to walk to a beach to swim and relax. We eventually rejoined the ship on our own.
Two other misadventures occurred during a group tour to Italy and Sicily. After a visit to Pompeii I had lingered a little and lost sight of my co-travelers. I walked and by some miracle arrived at the place we were supposed to reassemble. On the same trip, I was overwhelmed by the crowds at the Vatican and felt I might be swallowed by the sea of tourists. To be sure I didn’t lose my group, my entire attention was directed at the guide with the yellow umbrella. As a result I had no eyes to spare for all the splendors.

On a Dnieper river cruise, we visited some very interesting Ukrainian towns. One day we took a little boat to see a village where we were greeted by small children in colorful garb. Many beautiful crafts were on display and again I lost track of time. Suddenly I looked around me and none of the faces were familiar. Fortunately I remembered where our little boat was moored. The crew was still there and I asked one of them whether he knew where the group had gone. Thank God for cell phones. He got busy and presently he was leading me some distance to a building where everyone but me was having lunch. Whew!

Here is one more example of my talent for getting lost. This was in Poland on a tour celebrating a Chopin anniversary. We had many concerts everywhere. One evening in Cracow we attended a klezmer concert. We were traveling in several little vans. Cracow is a very
old city and many of the streets are too narrow for big buses. I enjoyed the concert immensely. Walking back at night, I somehow lost my way and could not remember where the vans were parked. I stopped some people on the street and asked where I could find a taxi. They gave me directions and I was lucky to find one. Fortunately I also remembered the name of our hotel and had visited an ATM that morning so I had local currency. When I got to the hotel the others had just arrived and no one ever knew that I had been missing.

Nowadays my travels occur vicariously via the big screen and high definition technology. I can revisit all the sights at leisure and remember, rediscover or simply see for the first time what I had not seen then. In fact, I saw the Vatican this way in much more depth than when I was there. Of course some things are missing: the sounds, the smells of a different place and the feeling of “being there”. Those are some of the trade-offs we make. The thing is to make the most of where we are and what we can do. Happy traveling!



How Do You Say That In English?

How-do-you-say-in-english

Each language looks at the world through a slightly different lens and develops its own idiosyncratic expressions. To be sure many experiences are common to humans everywhere and many ideas are expressed in similar ways. But certain perceptions escape this shared sameness and generate their own vocabulary. The Germans, for instance, have their own Weltanschauung. But wait, say you. Isn’t that a fancy word for worldview? Certain linguists maintain that it represents a more comprehensive outlook, a more exalted vision than the pedestrian “worldview.”

Two more such ostentatious German words have invaded our language: Zeitgeist is a one-word way of saying: “the intellectual fashion of the day.” Its virtue is brevity. Gestalt refers to “the whole nature of something.” It too is a useful shortcut. There are some more: Leitmotiv is used in music and literature. It is a recurrent theme associated with a character or a situation. Still another German word is considered to be untranslatable: gemutlich, which has a connotation of cozy and pleasantly comfortable. I think that “comfy” conveys the same feeling.

I am not aware of any Russian words that have entered the English language but Vladimir Nabokov who wrote both in Russian and in English cites two that have no equivalents: Toska means “spiritual anguish tinged with nostalgia.” Poshlost refers to a certain vulgarity of taste and moral tackiness. It is a little like the German word “kitsch” which we have adopted. The Germans have also given us “ersatz”. During World War II it was used to describe a poor imitation. When there was no real butter or leather there was ersatz. Nowadays we like to say”faux” (like faux fur) to designate a fake.

The French say the word “depaysement” cannot be adequately translated. Literally it means being out of your country, something like: out of your comfort zone. And while we are talking about French, “enjoy your meal” is just not the same as “Bon Appetit.”

The whole Yiddish language is in a category by itself. It is much easier to steal it wholesale than to develop satisfactory equivalents. Isn’t “Oy vey” more expressive than “Woe is me?” Doesn’t kvetch sound better than complain and isn’t “schlep” a lot more colorful than drag? “Schmooze” conveys something different from just mingling and “chutzpah” will beat nerve or audacity any day.

Saul Bellow says that oppressed people tend to be witty. Being self-deprecating is a defense mechanism. You laugh at yourself to disarm “the enemy.” It is a preemptive strike against them laughing at you.

Finally I have come up against two Hebrew words for which there is truly no translation. The first one is used when a woman is wearing a new outfit which you have never seen before. You are then supposed to say”titkhadshi lakh” which means roughly “renew yourself.” For a man, it’s tikhadesh lekha.
The other word is “davka” which has no equivalent in English. It has a number of uses and meanings and contains elements of contrariness, emphasis, paradox, irony and spite. Example: “She knows I am here every day except Friday. Davka she came on Friday.”

Do you know other untranslatable words or expressions? I would love to hear about them.