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Reflections on cornflakes and the written word

How many confessions have you had to bear, dear readers, in this blog? Here comes another, perhaps the saddest of all: I have been considering shutting down this blog. Why do we need more words, when so many words are being written and spoken, some wise, some hateful, some destructive, some pointless? And why do we need a language blog at a time of war, with no end in sight, when the hostages are cold, hungry and losing hope in their dark prison, when our brave soldiers face enemies hidden in tunnels? I almost wrote this as a goodbye posting. But then I remembered the cornflakes.

One night toward the end of Pesach a barrage of 26 rockets was fired from Lebanon at our yishuv. We were awoken at midnight by tremendous booms, the house and ground shaking, the sirens wailing. It seemed to go on and on, as we stumbled down to our shelter. When the all clear came we went back to bed, and eventually we fell asleep. The next morning I sat down to a bowl of Pesach cornflakes (sprinkled with nuts), that most prosaic of breakfasts, wrote a few messages to friends, began to clean the house and weed the garden.

And this is what every single person did on this yishuv, and all the other communities around. As have, slowly and painfully, the devastated communities in the South, whose lives were rent asunder on October seventh. Volunteers have cleaned their ruined houses, harvested their abandoned crops. And people have started to move back. We choose life. This is what the Jewish people do. And so this blog will continue. The fact is, I would miss you, dear readers. Anything that connects us is a choice for life.

And this got me thinking about the written word. We can’t really know when humans began speaking, when grunts and gestures became shaped, repeating, shared sounds. But we can trace the history of written language, because written language is preserved. Cro-Magnon cave paintings from at least 35,000 BCE depict everyday activities and seem to tell stories. Written language in Sumeria dates from around 3200 BCE, and less than a thousand years later, the Sumerians were producing literature. Writing in China did not appear until about 1600 BCE. Other alphabets, written languages and, gradually, bodies of literature, appeared around the world. Written language enables the codification of law, the capturing of oral history, the telling of complex stories in novels, the creation of beautiful poetry, some of whose lines express nature, love, sorrow and wonder in a way that prose never can. Written language is a treasure of human culture. But since we are creatures of free will, we can choose to write hateful diatribes like Mein Kampf and The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, and lies about other people and groups of people to further our political ends. Writing crystallizes our thoughts, for good and for ill, and preserves them for posterity.

Interestingly, in law libel (written defamation) is considered more serious than slander (spoken defamation) for exactly this reason. Defamation means the presentation of false statements as fact. Written defamation lasts longer and can be widely distributed, causing more damage to reputation, business and victims' wellbeing.

In Jewish law, lashon hara, or evil speech, covers both written and spoken words, and covers any statement about another person, that may cause that person to be considered with contempt, even if the statement is factually true.

I have always found it fascinating that North American indigenous peoples, before European contact, had no written language. These were ancient cultures. There were dozens of Native languages, no less expressive or grammatically complex than other languages around the world, but they did not have writing. History, law, morality, knowledge of nature, these were all passed on orally. Only with the arrival of European explorers, who brought missionaries and teachers, were there initiatives (on the part of the Europeans) to capture native languages in a syllabary (in which each symbol stands for a consonant-vowel sequence) or an alphabet. Native North Americans before European contact had cultures rich with music, art, deep knowledge of nature, and complex religious and communal practices. These were not primitive cultures; they were no less complex than the cultures of the Europeans who gradually overwhelmed them.

The Jewish people, the "People of the Book," are deeply literate. It is impossible to imagine Judaism without the written word. Yet it is an interesting exercise to imagine life without writing. Would we be closer to the natural world, to each other, less lost in our heads, if we had no writing?

May we use our writing to communicate, enrich, educate, inform, touch and entertain; to connect with one another. During this difficult time may we choose life in our writing and in every step we take, both the big steps and the prosaic ones. Remember the cornflakes.

Till next time, dear friends



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Stay strong, my dear friend. It is heartbreaking to know what our people in the North and South of Israel are going through. Thank you for keeping this blog and not leaving your readers -- this blog is the proof that the written word is still worthwhile.

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