Wikipedia, a Jamaican Jew, and Yak Shaving

For me, writing in Wikipedia is very often a story, within a story, within a story.

I am a member of the Language committee, which examines and approves the creation of editions of Wikipedia in new languages.

Recently we approved the new edition in the Jamaican language—an English-based creole commonly heard in reggae, in which books were published, and into which “the usual suspects” were translated: The New Testament, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, The Little Prince—and now, Wikipedia.

Since the draft “incubator” Wikipedia in this language conformed to the requirements for creating a full-fledged new domain, I supported the domain’s creation. My work as a language committee member could end here—and I’m a volunteer there to begin with—but I nonetheless decided to shave a yak.

Normal people, when they need a sweater, buy one in a store. I consider shaving a yak.

Some time after a Wikipedia in a new language is created, all the draft articles from the incubator are imported. When that is completed, I go over the list of imported articles and try to see whether there are any that aren’t linked to their counterparts in other languages. With some topics it’s easy by guessing the name of the topic or by looking at the images, and with some others it’s hard. With an English-based creole it’s of course very easy.

And that’s how the Jamaican Wikipedia ended up with only one article that doesn’t have a version in any other language: Aizak Mendiz Belisario.

It was easy enough to understand that this was a Jewish artist who lived in Jamaica in the 19th century. He was already mentioned a couple of times in the English Wikipedia, but there was no whole article about him. So I thought: Jamaican is similar enough to English and I can understand what most of the article is about, and the artist seems notable enough for an encyclopedia, because he was one of the pioneers of art in Jamaica, and because an anthology about him was published recently. And, of course, I am in a team that develops Content Translation—a translation tool for Wikipedia articles. So I decided to translate it to English.

As soon as I started the translation process, I noticed a bug. So I filed it, and because it was so easy to fix, I just fixed it.

Then I started actually translating the article. On the way I learned about the John Canoe festival, and added another spelling variant to the article about it in English; I verified that the book about the artist was actually published (you know, hoaxes happen), and googled for some more information about the artist with the hope of improving the English article further.

Normal people could just say “Fine, that language looks legit, let’s start a Wikipedia in it”. But I actually had to read all the articles in it, and then write a new one, improve another one, fix a bug, and write a blog post about all of it.

So here you go: Isaac Mendes Belisario, in English.

There is a story like this one behind every one of the millions and millions of articles in Wikipedia in all of its languages.

Uri Avnery and the Israeli Haredim

Uri Avnery is one of the main voices of the Israeli political left. Especially for people abroad – his English blog is frequently quoted in foreign blogs by people who are interested in Israel.

The opinions that Avnery expresses are strong and often unpleasant, but they are legitimate and they are usually have at least some basis in fact.

His latest column, Israeli Mustard, is about the ultra-orthodox Jews, also known as Haredim. It was quoted in Richard Stallman’s blog, for example. And it’s problematic. It’s mostly factual, but it has some imprecisions in details. They may seem unimportant, but they may be quoted and they may form people’s opinions, so I want to correct them. I don’t really care whether it’s intentional disinformation or neglect on Avnery’s side; I just want the corrections to be written down somewhere.

“Haredim […] are not part of the Israeli state. They don’t want to be.” – Well, not quite. It’s very open to interpretation, of course, but the situation goes more or less like this: There are Haredi leaders and ideologists, who express strong opposition to the existence of a Jewish Zionist state. What is important, however, is what people do and not what ideologists say.

For most purposes they are a part of the Israeli state and that’s how they want it. They mostly speak the same language (more on that later), they mostly vote in the same elections, they mostly have the same identity cards, they mostly ride the same buses. Despite the common rumors, many of them work in the same workplaces, although it’s true that many don’t work and instead spend all of their life in religious studies, earning much of their living from donations and from working Israelis’ taxes.

The Haredim are somewhat comparable in this regard to Jehovah’s Witnesses, although for many reasons they would, of course, hate the comparison. The Witnesses’ ideology is opposed to the modern idea of states, elections, conscription and so on, but in practice they are mostly integrated in the civil life of the states in which they live. From what I heard, the Witnesses don’t vote, and the Haredim actually do. And as far as I know, the Witnesses’ are not funded by taxpayers’ money, and the Haredim are.

“Actually, the Orthodox will never allow their children to join the army, because of the justified fear that they will be contaminated by ordinary Israelis” – again, not quite. Many Orthodox serve already. Patriotism is human, Haredim are human, serving in an army is an expression of patriotism – hence, some of them simply want to serve. Some do this not so much because of patriotism, but because they think that it is a good career move. Some do this with their parents’ agreement and some without. That’s fact. As for my opinion on the matter – well, my feeling is that their number is likely to grow, because it’s simply impossible for them to avoid this completely.

“The separation between the Orthodox and others – between Jews and Israelis, so to speak – is almost complete” – no. It exists, because at least some of them want it, or are pressured into it by their communal leadership. The separation is strongest in the education system: They definitely study in very different schools, and very few of them study in Israeli universities. But elsewhere the separation is weak: They often shop in different stores, but not exclusively. They often live in Haredim-only neighborhoods, but again, not exclusively. There is some separation in transportation, but despite the buzz that this topic generates, it’s actually quite small.

“The orthodox speak another language (Yiddish, meaning “Jewish”)” – no, and this is very important. Some Israeli Haredim speak Yiddish in some social contexts, but all of them know Hebrew. Not just the Hebrew of religious books, but the spoken Hebrew of the streets, the government, the newspapers and the shopping malls. They write with pretty much the same spelling inconsistencies that are characteristic to all Israelis. Of course, being a special and tightly-knit social group, they use some unique expression in their Hebrew, but you could say the same about computer programmers, too. For the most part, the Hebrew of Israeli Haredim is the same language as the Hebrew of the other Israelis. (I’m actually happy that Haredim keep Yiddish alive, but that’s a topic for a different post.)

The last paragraph of Avnery’s post made me particularly angry:

BY THE WAY: when an Israeli Jew is asked by a stranger anywhere in the world “what are you?” he always answers: “I am an Israeli”. He will never, ever, say: “I am a Jew”. Except the Orthodox

Well, this is not even wrong. “What are you”? What kind of a question is that? People don’t ask each other “what are you”, people ask “where are you from”. The answer to that is “Israel”, of course; both religious and secular Israelis say that. In the rare case that I’m asked what is my ethnicity, I say that I am a Jew, even though I’m not religious. So that’s definitely not a “never, ever” situation, as Avnery claims.

This is not to say that there is no discussion about the existence of an Israeli ethnic identity. It exists, and it’s old and passionate. Avnery just describes it very badly. I even agree that an Israeli ethnic identity exists, or, more precisely, co-exists with a Jewish ethnic identity. And despite their lifestyle and the claims of their leadership, the Haredim definitely belong to it. Israeli Haredim are Israeli, much like American Jehovah’s Witnesses, who are definitely American – whether they like it or not.

San Francisco 2010

Science fiction: A few minutes before midnight i found a hotel in San Francisco. And the parking is free. And it is within walking distance from the rental company where i return the car. And it is within walking distance from where i have business meetings tomorrow. And there are no junkies outside. And not only it is reasonably priced, the receptionist also gave me a “$10 per night discount for Jewish people”. We the Jews do rule the world – it’s not a myth.

People Speaking – Sixth

— “Can’t you see it? We’re in the last seven years before the coming of the Messiah. Now it’s already the sixth, which according to the prophecy in the Talmud, is the year of the voices. Next year is the seventh, which is the year of the wars.”

— “So you basically say that the wars has just begun and we ain’t seen nothing yet?”

— “Oh, yes, of course. There’s gonna be the war of Gog and Magog. The great nation of Gog from the north will come and fight us with many many soldiers. Read it, it’s in Ezekiel. And in the end The Holy [G-d], Blessed Be His Name, will win. It is written that it will take six months just to bury them. Do you imagine that? You’ll gonna go in a field and you’ll see someone dead, you’ll stop for a minute, bury him and then go on. And it’s gonna be like that for six months straight. Next year.”

Here’s the relevant Ezekiel (38-39) – actually it says seven months. And if you read Hebrew, here’s the relevant Talmud passage – Derech Eretz Zuta 10. After listing the seven years it goes on to this very convincing passage:

“R’ Gamliel says: The generation in which the son of David [the Messiah] comes – the house of gathering will be that of prostitution, the Galilee will be destroyed, and the people of Galilee will go from town to town and won’t find consolation, and the wisdom of the writers will stink, and those who fear sin will be loathed, the face of the generation as a face of a dog, and the truth is absent and he who avoids wickedness is going crazy.”