Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Living Life With No Future Tense

There are people out there (perhaps you know some) who invoke God in every sentence. The answer to everything is Barukh Hashem. "How are you doing?" Barukh Hashem. "How's work?" Barukh Hashem. "Want to hang out later?" Barukh Hashem.

It reminds me of a video I saw in Arabic 101 in college. The video was attached to one of the first lessons, on greetings. Two men meet in an outdoor coffeeshop. "How are you?" Alḥamdulilláh. "How's your wife?" Alḥamdulilláh. "How's your job?" Alḥamdulilláh. الحمد لله means, more or less, ברוך ה.

Now while I do aspire to live a life of looking through God-colored glasses, all this constant invocation has always sounded corny to me. Yes, if I have a quantifiable reason to thank God I'm going to do so, and I do use phrases such as "thank God" and toda la’Eil when necessary, but there's some kind of smarmy "frumliness"* surrounding the over-use of ברוך ה that makes it just sound corny to me.
*Growing up I never heard the word "frum" — my parents always described our family as 'religious' or 'observant', adjectives that could be applied to non-Orthodox Jews and Non-Jews as well.
My first encounter with the word frum, which has left a bad taste in my mouth associated with the word ever since, was when I was staying over by a friend for Shabbos in 4th grade or so, and his grandmother turned to us and said, "That school you go to isn't frum enough."
Whisper me to friend: Pssssst, what's 'frum' mean?
And since then, I've encountered too many uses of the word in connotations of "oh he's too frum" or "she's not frum enough" — most of the time I've heard the word, it was used to make negative judgments. And so I try to stick to 'religious' and 'observant', and only use "frum" in quotation-marks...
Another "frum" phrase that just doesn't sit right with me is אם ירצה ה. Im yirtzeh Hashem — 'God-willing' — just sounds like a bit too much.

I'm not sure what it is about it. I use it in writing a lot more frequently than I'll use it in speech (especially in abbreviation). Maybe it's that my usual register of speaking is fairly colloquial/slang, whereas my writing style vacillates between colloquial/slang and melodramatic. There's just something needlessly formal about it. Something possibly showoffy. I'm not sure.

But the feeling behind it, the ideology that God can and may affect the world, the sense that all futures — even prophecies — are contingent on the actions and desires of both the Creator [=God] and Subcreators [=people] of Worlds — that's all there. And so there are other ways to express the contingent potentiality of that which has not yet been.

I have gotten used to living with no future tense. There is no "I will be in Israel next week" because maybe I won't. I have no control over a whole host of factors that affect what I plan to do. And so, I plan to be in Israel next week. I hope to be in Israel next week. If all goes as planned, I'll be in Israel next week. Because I just don't know.

Promises are serious things. If I'm not going to lie about the present state of reality, why should I set myself up to be lying about the future state of reality? I can try to do something. And if I'm pretty certain that I'll succeed I can try and do something. But I will? Not necessarily.

העבר אין \ והעתיד עדיין \ וההווה כהרף־עין \ דאגה מניין


Anonymous Josh R. said...

I agree with you on the corniness and frumliness of "baruch hashem" but there's another problem too. People seem to forget that "baruch hashem" does not = "good." Hashem is baruch whether good things or bad things are happening, so just saying those two words doesn't really answer a "How are you?" So when someone answers me "baruch hashem" I ask for qualification. And then I don't know who's being worse, them with their sloppy philosophy, or me with my pedantry.

I've also resigned myself to not using the future tense by itself, but it feels veeery strange. If only we could all just agree that henceforth, "will" and "gonna" will merely indicate intentions/high probability, rather than absolute truth. Maybe if we had a Yeshivish Language Academy or something.

And gee ... "God-colored glasses." I like it. It could be the next big thing after the Jerusalem Compass and the Shabbos Lamp - we just need an inventor!

2/14/2006 11:16 PM  
Blogger Mar Gavriel said...

Interesting. I've always had a distasteful reaction to the word "religious", and liked "frum".

But I do like the word "observant".

2/15/2006 12:01 AM  
Blogger Lipman said...

Just to complete: I have no problem with 'frum', or 'observant' as a translation when talking to people who I suspect don't know the word 'frum' or have misleading associations of German 'fromm', but I can't have 'religious', which simply doesn't fit. (Apart from that, there are deeply, actually scaringly, religious non-O Jews.)

But on the topic: Are you aware that the use of b"h and iy"h comes from "kabbala"? And, as so often with these kabbalisitc stuff, it's cultivated by many people who don't care a bit about kashres and Shabbes, at least in "official" letters and the like, like the notion that the DaPS is the central piece of Jewish liturgy, or that you must under all circumstances kiss the mezuze (or the empty case)each time you enter or leave a room. And stand for the prayer of/for/to the dead, Kaddish.

2/15/2006 5:46 AM  
Blogger Lipman said...

(Sorry, seems I should use the preview function more often.)

Just to pour some oil on this troubled water, in most cases the answer fine (or great in the US) doesn't give the person who asked any more information than B"H.

Of course, in most cases, the question isn't an enquiry, but supposed to show general sympathy and interest. (Just think of "How do you do?" - reply "How do you do?", and only Jewish non-native speakers might stress the "you" of the answer, hehe.) OTOH, tone and mimics do answer the question, whatever the text of the answer is.

This is always strange with doctors if you answer "Yeah, great, thanks. Ok, so I'm here because of this terrible aches...."

2/15/2006 5:58 AM  
Blogger Elie said...

I'm with you on this one, both on the overuse of IYH/BH and discomfort with the word "frum". Even worse is the term "frummie", which is usually used pejoratively in relation to anyone who keeps one more chumra than the speaker does. My kids have learned that saying the word "frummie" evokes a reaction from me no less serious than if they had used the more infamous "F" word.

2/15/2006 9:46 AM  
Blogger Steg (dos iz nit der šteg) said...

Josh R:

noooooo, "God-colored glasses" is a state of mind, not a useless consumer product made to leech away people's skillz!

don't get me started on the "kosher lamp". in college, we had a lamp, a [mostly-empty] closet, and a door. that's all ya need! these kids today... and the magic jerusalem compass? for wimps! wimps, i tell you!


How does "religious" not fit? 'religious' and 'observant' are different things, but each of them can be used to describe people...

How are b"H and iy"H Cabbalistic?


Sounds like a good idea, maybe i should start calling people on that too.

2/15/2006 11:03 AM  
Blogger heccy said...

The problem with saying baruch hashem all the time is that it eventually loses its meaning. The south park boys eloquently presented this thesis with regards to curse words. theyre meant to be used to express extreme emotion, so when used willy nilly, they eventually come to mean nothing. they lose the force they were meant to convey. A "baruch hashem" for catching your train in the morning and for the dry cleaners getting that stain out may do no harm at first but when your cancer goes into remission, that "baruch hashem" (though not the feeling behind it) seems kind of cheap. this is a common problem in all languages where forcefull expressions, adjectives and superlatives get degraded and new ones come to take their place, i.e who uses "awesome" in its original sense anymore?

2/15/2006 12:00 PM  
Blogger Steg (dos iz nit der šteg) said...


great point!
speaking of <surfer>awesome</surfer> what about aw(e)ful?

2/15/2006 12:09 PM  
Anonymous Josh R. said...

Steg - I was joking about the glasses. But I do use the Shabbos lamp, though I'd design it a little differently if it were up to me. I like the closet idea, but my closet is too far from my bed for that! As for the compass, I'm skeptical.

Heccy - that is a problem too. I try to only say BH when I really mean it, which probably makes me sound very un-frum. But ... like you said it's a normal process and sooner or later we'll have another way of expressing it. Actually, after weaning myself off of saying "Thank G-d" frivolously, I find I can use that now instead of BH when I want to mean what I'm saying. And at least when amongst frummies - oops! - I think to hear that instead of BH might be jolting enough to make my meaning clear.

2/15/2006 12:26 PM  
Blogger The Observer said...

On the other hand, imagine, if you can, being on the level where indeed every BH was a heartfelt and genuine prayer of thanks. Of having a relationship with Hashem where giving thanks for making, or missing, the train is the same as for a life and death situation. After all, there is a blessing for bad news as well as for good news. If, as we believe, everything is in the hands of G-d, then that ought to be recognized both in the possible future, and the established past. But, as stated, let it never become rote.

2/15/2006 1:55 PM  
Anonymous Mike Koplow said...

I also dislike "frum". When I gripe about it, I gripe about it's self-congratulatoriness instead of it's being used negatively, but I'm with you on it.

I also can't stand can't stand ***can't stand*** "ba'al teshuvah". Heard at a hesped: "She was so into hhesed, it was like she was a ba'al teshuvah." Said to me when I told someone about my job (I do something quasi-unusual in the "knowledge work" line that sounds more impressive than it is): "You must be a ba'al teshuvah". And "ba'al teshuvah" in Hil. Teshuvah means someone who moves to West Rogers Park and starts to speak English as though Yiddish is their first language, without bothering to learn Yiddish first, right?

And don't get me started on Wendy Shalit and be'ilat teshuvah.

Also, as I've griped elsewhere, now that I'm on a bagel--sorry, I meant a roll--"Very nice". Frumspeak for "oh". I once heard someone say they moved to an identical apartment down the block because they got condo'd out. "Very nice", came the reply. Don't say "Oh, very nice"--it's redundant and you don't want to belabor the point.

Person A: "Who are you saying Kaddish for?"

Person B: "It's my grandfather's yortzait."

Person A: "Very nice."

I'm not making any of this up.

I mean, not that I'm complaining, chas v'sholem (badoomp-clang).

2/15/2006 2:01 PM  
Anonymous Mike Koplow said...

I've been suffering from send-button fever worse than usual lately. Both "it's"es at the beginning of the last one should have been "its"es.

Maqpidly yours,

2/15/2006 2:03 PM  
Blogger The back of the hill said...

One of my peeves is 'bli neder' used slangily to mean anything between "I'm not entirely sure" all the way to "I'm inventing this as I talk" with at the worst extreme "I really don't know jack, I'm just yakkin'".

Imirtzashem I shouln't hear (or read) it often, bezrosashem.

I should just answer bruchashem. And let 'em figger out what I mean.

2/15/2006 6:13 PM  
Blogger Lipman said...

Steg - was introduced by the Shlo.

2/16/2006 10:55 AM  
Blogger heccy said...

the point was borrowed from "The Unfolding of Language: An Evolutionary Tour of Mankind's Greatest Invention" by Guy Deutscher. Its a look at how languages could have arisen from a primitive "Me Tarzan" stage and how those forces are shaping languages as we speak (pun sorta kinda maybe intended). Theres a whole chapter on the development of the Semitic verbal system which you would probably enjoy. A great book overall but a bit of an overreliance on using as an example the word "gonna" as an indicator of future tense as opposed to "going to".

2/16/2006 4:19 PM  
Anonymous ליטוואק said...

"Lipman said...
Steg - was introduced by the Shlo."

Can you give (a) mareh mokom(os) ?

2/26/2006 12:24 AM  

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