Pen Ultimate / Head lines
On two distinctly Hebrew/Israeli expressions with relevant, and metaphorical, significance.
This week, on the occasion of Independence Day, I was racking my brain to find something - a concept, a quality, a phrase - that is typically, particularly and uniquely Israeli. The holiday was almost over when I was hit by a brainwave: I realized there are a couple of expressions, both describing a metaphorical action which, as far as I know, exist only in Hebrew and only in Israel.
The two phrases I have in mind both have to do with the Hebrew word "rosh," or "head": "lehagdil rosh" and "lehaktin rosh," which literally mean "to enlarge" and "to diminish, shrink" the head, respectively. To say, in English, that a person "has a big head" is an insult, meaning someone who puts on airs, is conceited or who is, if I may mix metaphors, "too big for his britches."
The notion of a head being shrunk is used, in English, in two main contexts. One is literal - and frightening: Apparently tribes in the Amazon would sever and prepare the dead heads from the equally dead bodies of their enemies to use as trophies. (I'll spare you the sordid details of how this was done. )
The other meaning is metaphorical and refers to the ostensible effect of psychotherapy on the psyche, said to be located in the brain. According to Merriam-Webster, the coupling of the word "head" with the word "shrinker" - to refer to a psychiatrist - dates back to 1950. The earliest mention of this term was apparently in Time magazine, on November 27, 1950, in a story about the person who was to lead that year's annual Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade in New York, William Boyd. The actor, then 55, was to be dressed as his movie and TV screen persona, "the noblest drugstore cowboy of them all, ... television's black-clad, white-haired ... Hopalong Cassidy." Boyd's head (and hat) was featured on the magazine's cover.
Boyd started his career in Hollywood as a glamorous, well-dressed hunk who played the romantic star of such silent films as "The Volga Boatman," "Two Arabian Knights" and "Dress Parade," earning about $100,000 a year back then, but apparently living beyond his means. After almost going bankrupt, he had the good fortune, with the advent of talkies, to be cast in a series of "B" westerns, all featuring the fearless and fair gunslinger Hopalong Cassidy.
Until 1947, Boyd made 66 such movies, and was smart enough to invest all his earthly belongings (mortgaging his house ) to buy the rights to them for $300,000. When TV came along he could sell his rights to the stations, and was catapulted to instant fame with the new mass audience, prompting Time to write in the timely Thanksgiving edition, in a column entitled "Manners & Morals": "During his early years in Hollywood, anyone who had predicted that he would end up as the rootin'-tootin' idol of U.S. children would have been led instantly off to a headshrinker*."
The writers were aware that they were employing a new expression - hence the asterisk, with a footnote at the end of the piece: "* Hollywood jargon for a psychiatrist."
The first to use the clipped version of the expression, "shrink," in common use today, was Thomas Pynchon, in his 1966 novel "The Crying of Lot 49." He too was apparently aware that he was introducing a new term in print, and on first mention he explains to readers: "It was Dr. Hilarius, her shrink, or psychotherapist." (The novel's heroine, by the way, is named Oedipa. )
One could devote an entire column to the question of why psychiatrists are said to shrink, and not to enlarge, their patients' heads, but there are other local, relevant contexts in which this metaphor is used that are worthy of mention.
Getting back to Hebrew and to Israel, one has to take note, we are dealing both with a personal trait, of someone being "a big head" or "a small head" by nature or inclination, and with an action in which the head changes - metaphorically, of course - its size. Sometimes it means going against one's own grain: when a "small head" decides to "enlarge" it, or vice versa.
The Hebrew slang dictionary by Ruvik Rosenthal is not useful in regard to these expressions, but it is likely that they date back to the early days of the Israel Defense Forces, when the notion of "lehaktin rosh" was used to describe someone who meticulously obeyed orders, automatically doing what he was told rather than using his own (better? ) judgment. This has its advantages in a hierarchical organization like an army, and one can even find a quote from the Jewish sages advocating such an approach - putting the human being in his humble place and clearly demarcating his earthly limits. Indeed at Jewish funerals we hear the words, attributed to the sage Akavia ben Mahalalel ("Ethics of the Fathers," 3:1 ): "Know from where you came and where you are going and before whom you are destined to give account and reckoning."
But it is not necessarily a good thing. Acting with "a small head" can lead people to behave with blind obedience and follow their leaders or their preferred herd, and to claim, often in retrospect, after it turns out that their actions were illegal, immoral and/or evil, that they were only "small heads" or "mere cogs in a machine."
On the other end of the spectrum, we have the attitude of "lehagdil rosh," meaning stepping into the breach, particularly in a situation in which there is a vacuum, or an opening, for an individual to take initiative - to interpret certain directives in the spirit in which they are given, in their understanding, to exert maximum effort to realize them.
In this context, one is once again reminded of a certain quote in "Ethics of the Fathers" (2:6 ): "Hillel used to say: ... In a place where there are no men strive to be a man." A contemporary example of the phenomenon of "enlarging one's head" would be when an Israeli soldier at a checkpoint, who has very clear instructions as to which Palestinians he is allowed to let through or not, decides in a certain instance, using common sense, to "bend" or even disobey the strict orders he has been given, for humanitarian reasons. But "enlarging" is not necessarily synonymous with doing good, or better, than the "small heads." It could also be used to describe a soldier who at the same checkpoint uses the authority vested in him (or her ) to humiliate or taunt Palestinians who are at his/her mercy, acting like someone with a "small head" while actually being an evil "big head." Or to describe a policeman or soldier who is ordered to apprehend a "wanted" person dead or alive, but opts for the lethal option only.
A very good example elucidating the concept of people who act as if they have big or small heads, as discussed above, can be seen in Shakespeare's "Antony and Cleopatra" (2:7 ). Marc Antony and Lepidus are guests aboard Pompey's ship, anchored in the Alexandria harbor; the three jointly rule Roman empire. Menas, Pompey's lieutenant, approaches his master, playing the "small head," and is being admonished by Pompey who has a different notion of his own and his underling's responsibilities, and chastises him:
Menas: "Wilt thou be lord of all the world?"
Pompey: "How should that be?"
Menas: "These three world-sharers, these competitors,
Are in thy vessel: let me cut the cable;
And, when we are put off, fall to their throats:
All there is thine."
Pompey: "Ah, this thou shouldst have done,
And not have spoke on't! In me 'tis villany;
In thee't had been good service. Thou must know,
'Tis not my profit that does lead mine honour;
Mine honour, it. Repent that e'er thy tongue
Hath so betray'd thine act: being done unknown,
I should have found it afterwards well done;
But must condemn it now."
Which begs the question: When is it advisable to either enlarge or diminish one's head, in the figurative sense? Can we trust others to size up situations that they confront, and adjust their head sizes to them? I think this all depends on the circumstances, the abilities and the desired and actual outcome of the actions of the individual, who makes that decision.
The rule of thumb here seems to be that someone who has an accurate idea of his capabilities and objectives, who is well aware of the boundaries between "thou will" and "thou won't," will also be able to assess a given situation properly and fit his or her behavior - and head - to it.
I'll venture a hypothesis: most "small heads" tend to assume that they are actually "big heads," and when changing head size tend to get it wrong. Every shrink will tell you it isn't easy to assess correctly the size of one's own head, and it's even more difficult to keep it fixed and fit.
Which leads me to reflect, sadly, that we have been living for 63 years in a state that does not have fixed boundaries. Is it a wonder that we have developed a mental and emotional flexibility as a survival technique? Clearly this is a situation where one size does not fit all.