One day, millennia ago, next to a fire or hearth, someone found that their flatbread dough — a dough made daily, eaten at every meal — had gone bad. Dough that should have been firm was misshapen. It was puffy and elastic. It would have smelled of something unfamiliar, and, to an inexperienced nose, probably unpleasant. Most likely, they tossed it to the birds or dogs, and started anew. But this “off” dough, had it been baked, would have been one of the first leavened breads.
Aramaic is my first language. I don’t get to speak it much with fellow native speakers in Los Angeles, where I live now. The number of Jewish Aramaic speakers has dwindled so much that we now quixotically call ourselves “The Worldwide Federation of Aramaic Speakers.” The group would fit in a small room.
Some time ago, I was invited to a dinner attended by a delegation of film people from Los Angeles. During the meal, one successful documentary director asked me a question: Could I think of any Hebrew words that have no equivalents in English? An excellent question, and even though I was sure there were many such words, the only two I could think of actually do have English equivalents, except that in Hebrew — or maybe it would be more accurate to say “in Israeli” — they carry completely different values.
What’s the Jewish language? Or, more to the point in 2009/5769, what is not? Seventy years ago, Yiddish was the lingua franca of the Jewish people. Today it is not Hebrew, it is not Yiddish, it is not Ladino, it is not Russian (a small flowering of Russian literature in Israel notwithstanding) — it is English.
Last month, while in the Brussels airport on my way back from Israel, I found myself behind an elderly bearded Jew. While waiting for our flights, we began chatting and I asked him — in Yiddish — if he spoke Yiddish. Though we had already spoken in two other languages, Hebrew and English, the transformation that came over him on hearing this third language was amazing. Yiddish created a link between us that the other languages had not been able to do.
Among visitors from the Old Country, Emek Refaim in the German Colony is the second-best known street in Jerusalem after Ben-Yehuda. The latter, where you buy mezuzahs and gorge on falafel, is named for a fabled fanatic who helped revive the Hebrew language. Emek Refaim, a three-minute walk from my house, goes back to the Hebrew Bible, and means either “Valley of the Giants” or “Valley of the Ghosts.” According to the First Book of Chronicles, David fought the Philistines here. I count them, too, as neighbors.
As an architect, I believe it is not the literalness of what one sees in the built world that creates a Jewish environment. Instead, a Jewish urban space is more like street theater, which can be set against any backdrop. The Jewish people have never been identified by the material things of our culture (a building type, a style, a constant aesthetic), but rather by events, ideas, concepts, dialogues and other intangibles in the public realm.