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Sunday, August 21, 2016

Weird, wacky, wonderful (Hebrew) words: שַׁלֶּכֶת/ shalechet

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It’s way too early to be thinking about fall, but there you go – that’s what I’m thinking about.  I accidentally put on my “Elul Hebrew Songs” playlist before Shabbos and ended up listening to a whole bunch of pre-Rosh Hashanah songs and getting into THAT kind of mood.

And with all these songs comes a word that comes up all the time in the fall in Israel that I had never really even thought about before… שַׁלֶּכֶת/ shalechet.

Morfix translates the word as “fall (of autumn leaves) ; (botany) exfoliation.”  Google, as “autumn, fall, or effoliation.”  But you’ll have to take my word for it – nobody says this in English the way Israelis do here, with its many heaped-on layers of meaning.

This is a lovely word that is a haiku unto itself.  It means, vaguely, “fallen leaves on sidewalks.”  But it also refers to the crunchiness of the leaves and the mood of the leaves and the ending-and-transitioning that is fall and even, kind of, winter in Israel, which isn’t really a season but more a dampness that descends for a while and then lifts.

It’s certainly not just “falling leaves” – because when people want to talk about falling leaves, they say עלי שלכת/alei shalechet, which would be redundant if shalechet was all about leaves.

The word apparently comes from the Tanach – in the book of Yeshaya (Isaiah) 6:13, “as an oak, whose stock remaineth, when they cast their leaves [shalechet], so the holy seed shall be the stock thereof.”

Artist Menashe Kadishman (1932-2015) created an art installation called Shalekhet at the Jewish Museum Berlin, which  is the installation titled Shalekhet (Fallen Leaves), which consists of a stark bare floor covered in “over 10,000 open-mouthed faces coarsely cut from heavy, circular iron plates.”

Lots of metal faces on a floor in a void of the Libeskind building

© Jewish Museum Berlin, photo: Marion Roßner (more info)

For most Israelis, however, the word has more cheerful connotations, or at least, sweetly bitter-sweet, in the way that Israelis do almost everything.  If you search on Google (in Hebrew), the word turns up hundreds of pictures of scenes completely unknown in Israel, the kind I’d be more likely to come across a few weeks from now back in Canada…

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Yeah.  Keep dreaming, Israel.  You simply don’t get leaves like that here, ever.

As I was sitting here writing this, there was a knock at the door and we were called outside to a fallen leaf of a different kind – an elderly neighbour lying on the fake crass of the next-door patio.  Crumpled, pale and skinny like a fallen leaf.  We sat by her and called her name, which also happens to be my name, or one of my names:  “Miriam, Miriam.”

Emaciated and lightly dripping blood from where the dialysis needle had been this morning, she simply didn’t have enough energy to walk up to her second-floor apartment. 

The woman who had knocked suggested we bring water and we sat her up, resting her head against my chest rather than the hard ground, as we tried to revive her, until her caregiver ran downstairs saying she was “just tired, just resting.”  She said not to call the ambulance, that she’d phone Miriam’s family later.

Just another autumn leaf, falling through the cracks.

Sorry – not so wild and wacky, just… our lives, here in Israel.  Life, as they say, is more intense here.

Israel’s National Poet Chaim Nachman Bialik (1873-1934) wrote a poem called “Summer is Dying,” which reminds us:

הַקַּיִץ גֹּוֵעַ מִתּוֹךְ זָהָב וָכֶתֶם
וּמִתּוֹךְ הָאַרְגָּמָן
שֶׁל-שַׁלֶּכֶת הַגַּנִּים וְשֶׁל-עָבֵי עַרְבָּיִם
הַמִּתְבּוֹסְסוֹת בְּדָמָן.

Summer is dying in the purple and gold and russet
of the falling leaves of the wood,
and the sunset clouds are dying
in their own blood.

In the emptying public gardens
the last strollers break their walk
to lift their eyes and follow
the flight of the last stork.

The heart is orphaned. Soon
the cold rains will be drumming.
'Have you patched your coat for winter!
Stocked potatoes against its coming?'

Ah, but here it is, still August.  Still hot.  AC running full blast, the sun roasting us if we even think about going outside.

And I believe there is still time enough to stock the potatoes yet.

Tzivia / צִיבְיָה


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