Monday, June 25, 2007

The Jurassic Park of languages

In a sociolinguistics course, I almost used that title for my final paper about the revival of Hebrew. Common sense made me reconsider. Although my teacher wasn't Jewish, I knew that some Jews take offense at the idea that Hebrew was ever an extinct language. Their attitude, ironically, leads them to overlook a remarkable Jewish achievement.

Hebrew is, put simply, the only language in history that has ever been successfully revived. This becomes clear once we understand what "revival" means. People tend to use the term somewhat loosely, applying it to movements aimed at preserving languages such as Irish, where there always have been at least a few native speakers left. And when the term is used correctly, as in the revival of Sanskrit, the movement is invariably nowhere near as successful as Modern Hebrew.

By the nineteenth century, Hebrew was not endangered but extinct, and it had been so for almost two millenia. By calling it "extinct," in no way am I trying to denigrate its central role in Judaism. On the contrary, it is a language that I myself use every day in formal prayer, as Jews have been doing throughout their entire history. But that's just the point: a purely religious language is not a living language, not in the sense that English or Spanish is.

Many people would disagree with me. William Chomsky writes, in Hebrew: The Eternal Language, "it may be safely assumed that there were always somewhere in the world, especially in Eretz Yisrael, individuals or even groups, who could and did employ the Hebrew language effectively in oral usage" (p. 218). There are various anecdotes of Jews conversing in Hebrew before the nineteenth century, such as when two Jews from faraway lands wanted to communicate and had no common vernacular. But the extent of these stories is disputed, and in any case it doesn't prove that Hebrew was a living language. Even today, there are people who can converse in Latin.

While Jews in the Middle Ages were trained from a young age to use Hebrew to a degree, it was nobody's native language. There's something special about native languages. Think about your native language. You probably can't remember ever not having spoken the language. It is so ingrained in your consciousness that it's a part of your very being. And all other languages seem like artificial systems of arbitrary sounds until you habituate yourself to them--and even then, they never feel quite as natural to you as your native tongue.

The simple fact is that Hebrew lacked that natural quality for almost the entire Diaspora. Jews studied Hebrew, prayed in Hebrew, and wrote books in Hebrew, but they did not truly speak the language except in very artificial, strained situations that rarely occurred. The revival turned it into a language that millions spoke in, thought in, and breathed in--to this day an unparalleled feat in the history of languages.

In my paper, I pondered what made this feat possible. I concluded that it depended on a whole range of factors happening simultaneously. It depended on the uncommon occurrence of a people who maintained a sense of unity for thousands of years while being scattered across the globe. It depended on their desire for a homeland, and their finding a place fertile for the creation of a new national tongue. It depended on Hebrew being their only common language. It depended on the dedication of a particular man who called himself Eliezer Ben Yehuda, and who was probably a little nuts.

What he did to bring Modern Hebrew to fruition has entered the lore of Jewish culture. He and his wife raised their son in total isolation, so that the child would be exposed to no language except Hebrew. If a non-Hebrew-speaking visitor arrived, Ben Yehuda would send the child to bed. When he came home one day to find his wife singing in Russian, he lost his temper. He even avoided having the child hear bird chirps and other animal sounds! Out of all this lunacy, the child became the world's first native speaker of Modern Hebrew.

One of the main sources I used for this information was Jack Fellman's 1973 book The Revival of a Classical Tongue. Fellman argued that Ben Yehuda's role in the revival has been overstated in popular treatments. Personally, I think Fellman's account proved just the opposite. It's true that Ben Yehuda couldn't have done it all on his own. Even after the experiment with his child, much work remained to turn Hebrew into a full modern language. But just the example he set had a huge impact on the movement. Of course, it raises significant ethical questions about language revival.

One of the problems facing the new language was that it lacked words for modern concepts. According to Fellman, Ben Yehuda sometimes had to rely on gestures and vague statements like "Take such and such...and bring me this and this, and I will drink" (p. 38). When Modern Hebrew took off in the populace, it borrowed wholesale from Arabic, English, and several other sources to enrich its vocabulary.

Nowadays, around five million people use Hebrew as their main language. As an American Jew who was taught Hebrew as a formal, religious language, I always get a weird feeling listening to Israelis use it so casually. To me, the word bitachon (ביטחון) refers to a spiritual concept meaning "trust"; it was odd to visit Israel and see that word printed on the backs of security personnel. I still can't wrap my mind around the idea that even criminals and street kids speak this language that a small group of scholars reconstructed from a holy tongue less than two centuries ago. As Robert St. John put it in Tongue of the Prophets, Ben Yehuda "made it possible for several million people to order groceries, drive cattle, make love, and curse out their neighbors in a language which until his day had been fit only for Talmudic argument and prayer" (pp. 11-12). Whether you consider the feat good or bad, it certainly is incredible.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Language observant

In 2000, Larry King asked Joe Lieberman which denomination of Judaism he followed: Orthodox, Conservative, or Reform. Lieberman replied, "I like to think of myself as an observant Jew, because it is broader and it's inclusive." This rather mild and good-natured remark sparked a torrent of criticism, providing fuel for those who felt Lieberman was selling out in his bid for the vice presidency. Binyamin Jolkovsky of The Jerusalem Post complained that Lieberman in this interview "changed his long-time self-description from 'Orthodox' to 'observant.'"

Jolkovsky's complaint ignored a couple of facts. Lieberman described himself as observant in his book In Praise of Public Life, released several months before the Larry King interview. What's more, in a separate interview just three days later, Lieberman began a sentence with the words "The fact that I'm Orthodox...." Nowhere did he change his self-description. He simply expressed a preference for one label over another.

Jolkovsky seemed to assume that adopting the term "observant" was tantamount to denying being Orthodox. I would expect non-Jews to be scratching their heads when listening to this squabble over terminology. Why would Orthodox Jews of all people be offended by the term "observant"? And why did Lieberman prefer the term?

Understanding what's going on here requires some historical background. The division of Judaism into its Orthodox and Reform branches occurred in the nineteenth century. As a new movement, Reform Judaism enacted changes to traditional Jewish practice. Jews who rejected the reforms and maintained the traditional ways came to be called Orthodox Jews.

In common parlance, Orthodox Judaism isn't really a single movement but rather an umbrella term for several Jewish groups that remained relatively traditional amidst the emergence of Reform Judaism. Sephardic Jews, who never even encountered the original Reform movement, are usually classed with the Orthodox today. But not everyone accepts this blanket use of the term Orthodox. There are those who restrict the term to the movement that arose as a direct reaction against Reform Judaism.

I tend to think of Orthodox Judaism as a retronym, or a new term for an old concept. Retronyms happen when a new version of something comes along, causing the old version to require a new name. For example, after microwave ovens were invented, older-style ovens came to be called "conventional ovens." (For those who think I'm implying that new is automatically better, I have two words: New Coke.)

In any case, it was Reform Jews who came up with the term Orthodox. Early Orthodox opponents of Reform, like Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, resisted the term. (The opposite is true of Christianity: The Eastern Orthodox Church gave itself the term orthodox, meaning "correct belief." But by the nineteenth century the word had acquired some negative connotations.)

Among Orthodox Jews themselves, the popular term is frum (pronounced with the vowel sound in wood). This Yiddish word literally means "pious," occasionally carrying negative overtones but most of the time used by Orthodox Jews as a respectful, informal alternative to "Orthodox."

The English word "observant" is not quite as popular. The problem is that many non-Orthodox Jews call themselves observant, and there's a perception that they use the word much more often than Orthodox Jews do. Because Orthodox Judaism tends to consider itself the only legitimate expression of Judaism, some people interpret a Jew's refusal to specify a denomination as contrary to the spirit of Orthodoxy.

As an Orthodox Jew myself, I have never accepted this reasoning. I like to do away with labels as much as I can. When I first set up an account with the dating site Frumster, I was required to describe what type of Orthodox Jew I was. I couldn't just say I was Orthodox; the site made me choose from the following subcategories: "Modern Orthodox liberal," "Modern Orthodox machmir," "Yeshivish Black Hat," "Hasidic," and "Carlebachian." I didn't feel comfortable with any of those, but I settled on "Modern Orthodox machmir," which seemed the least problematic to me.

Eventually, the site expanded its categories. Conservative and Reform Jews could now join the site, and everyone was given a wide range of choices for self-identification. I selected a new category called "Shomer Mitzvot," which literally means "watchful of the commandments"--in other words, observant. It was exactly the type of generic self-description I had been searching for all along.

A friend of mine recently told me that his daughter thinks one should never select that category. He did not remember why she felt this way, but I had little trouble guessing. She probably believes that someone who identifies as "Shomer Mitzvot" is in effect not calling himself Orthodox. Or, at least, she thinks that people might perceive it that way, and so it's best to avoid it if you want to increase your chances of finding a prospective match in the Orthodox community.

You know what? I don't care. I feel comfortable calling myself "Shomer Mitzvot," and that's all that matters. The last thing I'm going to do is bend to someone else's standards. I'm not that desperate. Besides, it all adds up in the end. If a woman assumes I'm not suited to her simply because I call myself "Shomer Mitzvot," then she's probably right.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Are video games a form of art?

I am prepared to believe that video games can be elegant, subtle, sophisticated, challenging and visually wonderful. But I believe the nature of the medium prevents it from moving beyond craftsmanship to the stature of art. To my knowledge, no one in or out of the field has ever been able to cite a game worthy of comparison with the great dramatists, poets, filmmakers, novelists and composers. That a game can aspire to artistic importance as a visual experience, I accept. But for most gamers, video games represent a loss of those precious hours we have available to make ourselves more cultured, civilized and empathetic.
Those words are from Roger Ebert in 2005, when he caused a firestorm with his assertion that video games are inherently not a form of art. Whether you agree with him or not, the ensuing debate was interesting. Unfortunately, Ebert's credibility was suspect, since by his own admission he lacked familiarity with modern video games. And his statement sounds just like the sort of narrow-minded declaration that's almost asking to be discredited. A couple of generations ago, most people would have scoffed at the idea that comic books are art; nowadays, that idea has gained increasingly wide acceptance (though the respected comic books carry a new name, graphic novels).

Still, I understand where Ebert is coming from. And I say this as someone who knows even less about modern video games than he does. I largely stopped playing them when I was a teenager. I felt that I wasn't getting out of them anywhere near as much as I was putting into them. They were an enjoyable diversion, but left me feeling drained when I spent too much time with them.

I'm aware that video games have increased in sophistication since the days of Nintendo, by huge orders of magnitude. And apparently some gamers think these are works of the human imagination that deserve comparison with great works of literature--or at least that they have that potential, even if the genre is in its infancy right now.

If you think that video games will never be Shakespeare, I should remind you that most people in Shakespeare's time would have laughed at the idea that his plays would be studied centuries later. Most of his plays weren't even published during his lifetime. And it took a long time before critics viewed them as serious works of literature, much less ranked him as the greatest writer in the English language.

Nowadays, people study the heavily footnoted texts of Shakespeare's plays in a manner that the Bard himself would never have envisioned. Is it possible that a similar process will happen with computer games? Will students of the future be studying games in the classroom, in a format that would perplex the original designers?

I debated these issues with someone on a message board a few years ago. He took the position that some video games have achieved an artistic level comparable to great literature and film; I was skeptical, even while admitting my ignorance. It was a nice debate, and I think we both ended up learning something. I learned from him that some modern video games--notably adventure games--have fairly complex narratives, with even the rudiments of character development. But I managed to persuade him that the very nature of video games cuts against the kind of complexity found in literature and film.

Traditionally, games have nothing to do with art. Chess may be a high intellectual activity, but it isn't really a form of art. What all art forms have in common, whether they be paintings, sculptures, poems, novels, plays, films, or comic books, is that the viewer contributes nothing to them beyond his own imagination. Interactive fiction (like the Choose Your Own Adventure series for kids) has always remained a minor phenomenon.

Computers have the potential to blur that line, however, creating games with a high degree of artistic content in terms of both graphics and narrative. But there is a limit. The only way they could achieve full artistic status is if they stopped being games.

I'll give an example from an old game I used to play, Infocom's text adventure The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, based on the Douglas Adams novel. The novel contains a scene where Arthur is at a party trying pick up a girl, when another guy comes along and catches her attention by saying he's from another planet. Your goal in the game, as a player, is to make sure the scene happens exactly as it did in the book. You can have no effect on Arthur's chances of getting the girl. Arthur is a loser. That's part of the script. Even if in real life you're God's gift to women, as computer game addicts are known to be, you're not going to change what Arthur's like. The game has a lot of puzzles that require brain power, but your personality doesn't affect the outcome.

Would it be possible to create a game where your personality does make a difference? I can imagine it now. It will be called SimFlirt. Your objective is to go to a party and pick up a girl. (Or, if you are a girl, then you pick up a guy. Or, if you're gay...never mind.) Whether you succeed depends on what you do or say.

Of course, such a game would never compare to a novel or a film. The range of possible outcomes would still be relatively limited. If a character in a computer game can have any level of depth, then it must be written into the game's narrative, without the player having much influence. The problem is that the player's very presence dilutes this process. Games simply are not a good medium for exploring the nuances of human behavior, at least not to the degree found in literature.

The point here is that games are different, not inferior. They serve a different purpose. I'm reminded of something Orson Scott Card said in his 1990 book How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy: "In a fantasy, if magic has no limitations, the characters are omnipotent gods; anything can happen, and so there's no story. There have to be strict limits on magic. Dungeons and Dragons uses a seniority system that may work well for games, but for stories it is truly stupid: The longer you manage to stay alive, the more spells you know and the more power you have" (p. 31).

Note Card's implication that what works well in a game isn't believable in fiction. I would go further and suggest that what works in fiction isn't suited to a game. Even games with narratives, like D&D and computer adventure games, do not require the same suspension of disbelief as fiction does. That's because the narrative is only a means to an end, whereas in fiction the narrative is central. Perhaps the computer adventure games of today put a greater focus on narrative than ever before. But there comes a point when the integrity of the narrative must bow to the integrity of the game. Everything in a game falls back on the player's choices, and by giving the player choices, the narrative inevitably suffers.

If video games are blurring the distinction by taking on many artistic qualities, the question is how far they can go while still remaining games. And while there will always be people who devote their precious hours to these games, their impact may remain marginal simply because they forge that impossible middle ground between the artistic and the recreational.

Friday, June 01, 2007

The Jewish cab test

Shortly after Tiger Woods became the first black to win the Masters Tournament, he insisted that he was not black but "Cablinasian," a word he coined to describe the different groups in his ancestry: Caucasian, Black, Indian, and Asian. Sarcastic African-American columnist Gregory Kane retorted that Woods should be given "the cab test": "Stand him on a street corner in any large American city and have him hail a cab. If he gets one, he's Cablinasian. If he doesn't, he's definitely black" (The Baltimore Sun, Apr. 27, 1997, pg. 1B).

I wonder if a similar test could be applied to Jews. Arguably, the Holocaust was a grotesque version of this test, as Jews who abandoned their heritage and became atheists or Christians discovered that they were just as likely to be gassed as the bearded shtetl Jew. Hitler justified this innovation to classical anti-Semitism by arguing that Jews who assimilated took Jewish ideas with them. I can't say he was totally wrong.

These examples highlight one of the most basic questions about ethnic identity: is it defined by members of the group themselves, or by outsiders? For us Jews, this dilemma is even more perplexing, because we haven't even settled the "Who is a Jew?" question amongst ourselves. Why should we expect others to fare any better?

The traditional definition of a Jew is one whose mother is Jewish, or one who converts. (Computer scientists would call that a recursive definition.) But Orthodox Jews do not accept conversions done by Conservative or Reform rabbis, and Reform Judaism has expanded the definition to include those born to a Jewish father. Depending on one's perspective, individuals in many U.S. synagogues may not be Jewish.

No matter how strongly Orthodox Jews insist that their definition is the only legitimate one, non-Jews cannot be bothered to take sides on this in-the-family dispute. They have enough trouble dealing with a group that even by their standards defies all normal classifications. I have seen confused people on message boards write "Is Judaism a race or a religion?" as if it must be one or the other. In recent times, the trend has been to think of Jews as purely a religion and not to recognize their ethnic character. I increasingly see articles that describe celebrities as having been "born to Jewish parents." Some younger stars like Natalie Portman openly identify as Jewish, but there's a sense that it would be rude to describe someone as Jewish without their permission.

To people with this outlook, a phrase like "Jewish atheist" sounds as oxymoronic as "Catholic atheist," even though many older Jews identify as one. And what about that quaint phrase "the Jewish nation" which shows up in our prayerbooks? How can Jews be a nation? Doesn't that require a country? Of course, now Jews have a country, but those who never set foot there are still Jews.

Our unconventional classification arises from our long and complex history over 4,000 years. Few groups in the world have retained a sense of shared identity for that long, and so no matter how much we attempt to adapt to current norms, there lurks in our existence an element of the ancient that relatively modern categories like "race," "ethnic group," "religion," and "nation" can never quite capture.

The ancient Israelites could possibly be called a "tribe," though that term is rarely used, reserved instead for the twelve tribes within ancient Israel. Eventually, Israel did constitute a true nation. But after the Jews were exiled, they continued to think of themselves as Jews. In this respect, they were unusual. Most religions that spread outward from a single land retained religious but not national or ethnic identity. Partly this was because religions like Catholicism and Islam had a prosyletizing mission which Judaism lacked. Thus the people of Turkey, Pakistan, and Iran are Muslims but not Arabs. Because Jewish conversions never happened on a large scale (with possible exceptions like the Khazars), the converts became part of the Jewish people, losing their previous cultural identity. I have heard rabbis compare Jews to a family, where the converts are like adopted children. It's not a perfect analogy (since adopted children do not choose their parents), but it does give a sense of how Jews can think of themselves as having blood ties even while accepting converts.

The problem is that Gentiles would not be expected to pay any attention to how Jews defined themselves. What ultimately bound Jews together mirrored what bound blacks together: namely, persecution. It is worth asking whether there would be a concept such as "black" today if racism had never existed. It is similarly worth asking if Jews would have outlasted their ancient Middle-Eastern origins if anti-Semitism had never existed. Nowadays, many secular Jews admit that their Jewish identity is often driven by a desire to stick it to the anti-Semites. As Ilya Ehrenburg said, "so long as there is a single anti-Semite in the world, I shall declare with pride that I am a Jew" (qtd. in Alan Dershowitz's book Chutzpah, p. 14). Likewise, as anti-Semitism declines, or at least fades into the background, the concept of a secular Jew becomes harder to maintain.

Of course, if you define a Jew as anyone who may be a victim of anti-Semitism, then the definition becomes as arbitrary as bigotry is senseless. Plessy v. Ferguson sanctioned discrimination against a man who was black on the basis of one great-grandparent; many people with more African ancestry have passed for white. In a similar way, Barry Goldwater was subject to anti-Semitism even though he was a practicing Episcopalian with a Gentile mother; he probably would have been safe if his name had been Anderson. The cab test may be a sad reality for blacks, but for Jews it is something we must actively resist if we are to make sense of our lives.