Text size

In one of the first scenes of the movie "Closer" (based on a play by Patrick Marber, and directed by Mike Nichols) actors Natalie Portman and Jude Law are waiting in the emergency room of a hospital. He brought her there after a cab almost ran her over. He goes away for a moment and she rummages around in his bag. When he comes back, she explains that she had been looking for a cigarette.

"You didn't fancy my sandwiches?" he asks.

"Don't eat fish."

"Why not?"

"Fish piss in the sea."

"So do children."

"Don't eat children, either."

W.C. Fields came to a different conclusion based on the same facts: "I never drink water because of the disgusting things that fish do in it."

With respect to a different matter, Prof. Menachem Magidor had this to say on January 7, while presenting the findings of a committee he chaired that had examined the structure of Israel's government: "Israeli society does not have the notion of 'it's not done.' There are all kinds of things that are not spelled out in the book of laws, and yet they are improper. It's not done." The irony here was that Magidor presented the findings to the person who appointed the committee, President Moshe Katsav.

Former Supreme Court justice Yitzhak Zamir pontificated recently in the same vein in an interview in Haaretz Magazine ("Dire diagnosis," March 2): "It's really not a case of the law being everything: There are values. There is an expression in English: 'It's not done.' But in Israel, if the court didn't say 'guilty of bribery,' even though it said you did improper things, you are exonerated."

Zamir used the expression "it's not done," and I checked to see whether there are similar phrases in French, German and Spanish. It stands to reason that this idea originally had to do with class, and the higher classes determined the guidelines for the things that could or could not be done: If you wanted to belong, there were things you couldn't do.

Indecent proposal

There is no commonly used phrase for this in Hebrew, although a similar expression is used twice in the Bible. The first time is in Genesis 29, when Jacob awakes after his wedding night and finds Leah in his bed, instead of his beloved Rachel for whom he had toiled and waited seven years. Laban comes up with an excuse that he had ostensibly invented that very moment - or at the very least he had neglected to inform Jacob about it before promising to give him his daughter Rachel: "It must not be so done in our country, to give the younger before the firstborn."

The second time the phrase comes up is in II Samuel 12, when Amnon approaches his half-sister Tamar with a very indecent proposal: "Come lie with me, my sister." The sages hasten to explain that although both had been fathered by King David, Tamar's mother had not converted yet when she became pregnant with her, and consequently the two offspring were not really related. And indeed, Tamar invokes the "no such thing ought to be done in Israel" claim - not regarding the possible act of incest, but about the lack (temporary, she says) of David's official approval of it: "I pray thee, speak unto the king, for he will not withhold me from thee." This does not save her from rape.

The whole point of the "it's not done" concept isn't about things that are explicitly permitted or forbidden. It's about implicit agreement about rules of conduct, accepted by all. In Israel there were times when immigrants who came here from Eastern Europe set the standards for propriety. When the voice of those who came to Israel from other eastern or non- European countries prevailed in public discourse, and they challenged not necessarily the standards, but the authority of those who had determined them, the notion of "it's not done" evaporated. Hence, anything goes and the courts will decide what is proper or not. And even after the courts have ruled that something should not have been done, there are those who go on chanting about the one who was found guilty, "He is innocent."

The phrase may clearly state "it's not done," but this does not mean that certain things were not done. On the contrary: They were done and if one got caught doing them, there was a high price to pay - not necessarily in jail time, but in a ruined reputation. In the past suspects committed suicide for fear of being shamed in public, not to mention being brought to court. Nowadays, when people are convicted of some misdeed, they still hope it will be not considered a crime of moral turpitude, and if it is, they will claim and hope the turpitude will pale with the years.

Which brings me back to fish, and what they do in the water. There is an expression which is singularly Israeli: "Now we will show them from where the fish pees" - meaning, "Now we will teach them a lesson by exposing some hidden facts." One explanation of the origin of that peculiar phrase is that it is actually quite difficult to figure out how fish discharge their waste. But the origin of the phrase could also be in the following joke:

A guy was swimming in a pool and had an urgent need to relieve himself. He asked a friend how he should go about it.

"Do it in the water," the friend advised him.

"But it's not done," he protested.

"Don't be silly," said the friend. "Everyone does it in the water."

So the guy did - and was promptly thrown out. "But everyone does it in the water," he complained.

"That's true," he was told, "but not from the diving board!"

What is more important - stopping people from doing it from the diving board, or continuing to believe that the water is still relatively unpolluted?

I was thinking about going to swim my 50 laps after writing this column, but somehow I am having second thoughts. The Yiddish language, as always, has the best way to put it: "es past nisht."