Friday, February 4, 2011

the kuf and the caff

I heard them speaking, and so I stopped them.

"Excuse me," I said, "could you please tell me whether the word 'kavod' starts with a kuf or a caff?"

"What do you need it for?" he said, looking suddenly like Mossad agents look when they ask questions.

"I need it," I said. "I just need it." But I thought the better of my dumb-ass paranoid answer, and decided to give some semblance of the truth. "I was writing 'kol ha-kavod' and I think I spelled it wrong."

Then the woman stepped in, looking nervously at the man. "It's caff," she said. I looked at her red hoodie. It spelled out Boston University with Hebrew letters — with one letter a mistake. It had a ם instead of a ס. Which made it fairly insane to try to read. But a pretty typical kind of problem as secular tranliterations go.

"It feels like it should be a kuf — ק —" I said, "and not a caff — כ —." The ק after all, is a sacred letter, making things holy. And so I had guessed wrong and written כל הקבוד when it should have been כל הכבוד. Do you have any idea how embarrassed I was? No. Well, they didn't either.

The man didn't let it go.

"They've ruined the language," he said. "There's more English in it than there is Hebrew. Nothing sounds the same anymore. Nobody knows how the letters should be pronounced. Kavod used to be spelled differently."

"Arabic held on to the pronunciation," I said, trying to be helpful.

He grunted.

"It used to be pure. Kavod was honor. Now it means power." He spat.

Ah, that explains it, I thought. I had associated honor with the sacred. But in Hebrew today, honor was a military term. I remember an old hobbled half blind man on the Eged bus in Jerusalem get up out of his seat and offer it to my friend David, thinking he was a soldier rather than a student. My friend had been wearing olive green. And he was the age that would have been a soldier — whether in Jerusalem or in Vietnam — had he not been a) an American and b) a conscientious objector. I wonder if the olive green was unconscious identification. He was, after all, a psych major.

"כל הכבוד לחילים" he said. Which I was sure, given his deference, meant he was honoring soldiers by offering up his seat. It was the day after the Six Day War. It was the Seventh Day. It was the day we all walked to the Wall for the first time since pre-1948. There had been houses all along the way. Houses with white flags waving from the windows, and terrified eyes peaking out. It was my last look at Jerusalem. On that day in June, 1967, I vowed not to come back until there was a permanent resolution to those petrified faces behind the white flags.

But the old man, according to the Israeli stickler I met today was honoring power, pure and simple. Thus the caff and not the kuf.

An interesting midrash for just walking the dog.

We were at Fort Funston, by the drinking fountain. The fountain where twenty to thirty dogs can congregate thirstily around the five or six stainless steel doggie bowls of slopping water.

Their dog's name was Melech — King — a funny enough name for an Israeli dog. Israelis being outrageously anti-authoritarian, and King being so pedestrian a doggie name here. Or maybe that was the point. Maybe the only King they would recognize would be their beloved dog.

We were breaking Fort Funston protocol talking the kuf and the caff when we could have been talking feces and foxtails. But I couldn't let it go.

"The language wasn't so pure," I said, "even in ancient times. Aramaic —"

"Don't give me Aramaic," he bellowed, as his wife tried to calm him down. And I got a 45 minute lecture on the impurities of Aramaic and the common people — as distinct from the Sacred Tongue.

The dogs were perfect angels. They sniffed each others' butts and genitals congenially, slurped in the collective water bowls, found their own balls, and curled up to wait patiently. The Mossad agent guy was still ranting about the impurities of language. Until at last he looked around, and the enemies of linguistic correctness did not seem to be in sight. The dogs perked up, and we went our separate ways.

"כל הקבוד" I called after him, as he left, hoping that he could hear the Arabized kuff instead of caff in my voice. He didn't turn around as he waved a disgusted wave. His wife smiled apologetically as she scurried off. Melech trotted obediently behind.

Rosh and I continued up the hill and into the sand trail on the cliff.

Spelling, I thought. It matters.

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