Ev­ery Year In Is­rael, There's A New Pop­u­lar Word — This One Is ‘Per­fect’

Forward Magazine - - Reviews - BY AVIYA KUSH­NER

Each time I re­turn to Is­rael, a new word greets me. I usu­ally re­al­ize some­where around bag­gage claim that a pre­vi­ously un­used word is the word of the mo­ment — be­cause it’s plas­tered on ad­ver­tise­ments of all kinds. What­ever the word is, I soon see and hear it ev­ery­where, and I’m al­ways amazed and amused at how pop­u­lar a word can get, and how fast it can hap­pen. Since my vis­its are often timed to the aca­demic cal­en­dar, I can estimate that it gen­er­ally takes one semester, or two semesters max, for a word to make it big. The cur­rent om­nipresent word is mush­lam, or “per­fect.” Then there is the fem­i­nine form, mush­lemet.

Mush­lam comes from the word shalem, or “whole,” and some­how the idea of per­fec­tion and whole­ness, in mas­cu­line form and in fem­i­nine form, is ir­re­sistible to a wide range of mar­keters. It is as if there is noth­ing to add — the ex­pe­ri­ence is com­plete.

How could a cus­tomer pos­si­bly ob­ject to such whole­ness?

I’ve seen mush­lam used to hawk ev­ery­thing from makeup to a va­ca­tion pack­age in Ei­lat. Some­times it is at­tached to po­lit­i­cal pro­pos­als, a bit of a tougher sell. The idea is to con­vince the lis­tener that some­thing is so whole that it’s per­fect.

Israelis al­ways laugh when I bring up the om­nipresent word, be­cause they’re so used to it. It’s like Amer­i­can el­e­va­tor mu­sic, al­ways in the back­ground. After a few weeks they al­ways find me and say: “You’re right, that word is ev­ery­where. I didn’t no­tice be­fore.”

Be­fore mush­lam, the word I no­ticed sud­denly pop­ping up ev­ery­where was migvan, or “se­lec­tion.” Pre­vi­ously, if I wanted to buy tow­els, they were sim­ply ma­g­a­vot, or “tow­els.” But at some point stores started re­fer­ring to migvan ma­g­a­vot, or a “se­lec­tion” of tow­els. Like mush­lam, which can be used to make the same old makeup seem flaw­less, per­fect, whole, migvan seems to be used to jazz up the or­di­nary. I al­ways laugh when a wait­ress refers to migvan sala­tim, or a se­lec­tion of sal­ads, or, of course, migvan kin­uchim, a se­lec­tion of desserts. When I was a child they were just sal­ads and just desserts, no migvan at­tached.

Just the other day, I no­ticed that Is­rael’s ubiq­ui­tous Aroma res­tau­rant chain put up new signs ad­ver­tis­ing migvan bagels, or a se­lec­tion of bagels; though I grew up in New York, the land of bagels, I felt my­self get­ting ex­cited. The word migvan made the fa­mil­iar bagel sound like some­thing no­table and ex­pan­sive. For a sec­ond there, I felt that the res­tau­rant was of­fer­ing a din­ing ex­pe­ri­ence that was, well, mush­lam.

Though ad­ver­tis­ing often pro­vides the first hints of a word’s

ris­ing pop­u­lar­ity, oc­ca­sion­ally Is­rael’s fa­mous (or, per­haps more ac­cu­rately, in­fa­mous) bu­reau­cracy leads the way. Re­new­ing my Is­raeli pass­port in Chicago, I first had to speak into a phone. There were, of course, no hu­mans in sight. Then a mys­te­ri­ous voice on the phone told me to wait. In the far past, to wait was

l’chakot. But at some point, that word was re­placed by l’hamtin. The wait­ing pe­riod be­came ham­tana. Leave it to Is­rael — where no one seems to be able to wait in line, and where peo­ple swarm to a bus en­trance in an amor­phous large blob — to jazz up wait­ing. Ana

l’hamtin, the newer way of say­ing “Please wait,” some­how sounds more el­e­gant, more modern, than the old scream — t’chaki

b’vakasha, or “Wait, please.” Maybe the hope is that ana, the “please” that ap­pears all over the an­cient prayers, will make peo­ple lis­ten to di­rec­tions, even if they in­volve wait­ing.

Apart from the om­nipresent words, there are small lin­guis­tic changes that I no­tice on each re­turn to Is­rael. I think of these as “glob­al­iza­tion” and “anti-glob­al­iza­tion,” a mi­cro­cosm of po­lit­i­cal re­al­ity. Some­times an English word moves into He­brew, and some­times the re­verse hap­pens: A word bor­rowed from English some­how gets a new He­brew in­car­na­tion.

I no­tice this most on res­tau­rant menus. A sand­wich in He­brew used to be, well, a send­veech — an English word. But pick up a menu, and you’ll often see sand­wiches re­ferred to as krichim, with ka­reech as the sin­gu­lar. If that sounds

fa­mil­iar, it’s be­cause the Hag­gadah refers to ko­rech, or the sand­wich of matzo and maror, or bit­ter herbs, made by the sage Hil­lel.

On the other hand, English — or lingo with some re­la­tion­ship to English — is creep­ing into menus at a rapid pace, even when there are per­fectly fine He­brew equiv­a­lents. Two words I’ve no­ticed are “toast,” which ba­si­cally means a sand­wich with melted cheese and other ad­di­tions, and norvegi, an Is­raeli pronunciation of Nor­we­gian, which means lox. In the old days, smoked fish was re­ferred to as, well, smoked fish in He­brew: dag


I’m cu­ri­ous to see how much the large in­flux of French im­mi­grants, many flee­ing anti-Semitism in France, will in­flu­ence the He­brew word-of-the-mo­ment. So far, the main lin­guis­tic in­flu­ence of the French seems to be on Ital­ian im­mi­grants, and both the Ital­ian and the French seem to ex­cel in the es­sen­tial cof­fee-and-pas­try di­vi­sion of life.

On a rainy day, I took shelter in an Ital­ian bak­ery in Tel Aviv, where the wait­ress rushed over to of­fer me a cap­puc­cino v’crois­sant. She seemed con­fused by what lan­guage to use with me, and so she went with a mix­ture of Ital­ian and French. In that sen­tence, the only He­brew was the vav hachibur

— the let­ter vav or v’ sound that con­nects words and ideas.

I looked over at the pas­try dis­play. What she was point­ing to was not a crois­sant, but a per­fectly gor­geous­look­ing filled Ital­ian pas­try.

I chose the pis­ta­chio pas­try, and she smiled in re­lief.

If only the wait­ress had fin­ished off her greet­ing with a He­brew phrase like, say, zeh mush­lam, or, “It’s per­fect,” I would have felt like I was truly in Is­rael in­stead of tem­po­rar­ily in Rome.

I've seen the word used to hawk ev­ery­thing from makeup to va­ca­tion pack­ages.


SO LIT­TLE TIME, SO MANY BAGELS: A sign ad­ver­tises a ‘migvan’ or ‘se­lec­tion’ of bagels, in­clud­ing roast beef, tuna, salmon and fried egg.

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