Word of the Day / Mi Amar L'mi? When Terrorism Meets Israeli Black Humor

Hitchhiking can be dangerous, but maybe a Bible quiz will help.

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Which biblical figure said what to whom? And what does that have to do with the kidnapped teens?
Which biblical figure said what to whom? And what does that have to do with the kidnapped teens?
Shoshana Kordova
Shoshana Kordova

There isn’t much room for jokes when the subject is last week’s abduction of three Israeli high school students by Palestinian militants. But slivers of black humor still managed to slip into the national discourse.

In one comments thread on Israeli news site Ynet, that humor involved a phrase that strikes fear into the heart of many a high school student – not the fear of being kidnapped by men with guns, but the infinitely more mundane fears of students everywhere: hard test questions and bad grades. That phrase is mi amar l’mi, meaning “who said to whom.”

Outside Israel, those words may be associated with English class quizzes on a Shakespeare play. Here it is associated with the way the Bible is taught in schools, and it has a place of dubious honor on the matriculation exam for Bible study, on which students are asked questions like "Who said, 'Take, I beseech thee, my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live'?" (Answer: Jonah to God.)

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Since the teenagers were kidnapped while attempting to hitch a ride – a common practice in the West Bank and other parts of Israel that are not as well-served by public transit as they could be – the rabbi of the Samaria region in the West Bank offered religious hitchhikers a suggestion: Use a password that only other Orthodox Jews are likely to know.

“For the communities of Judea and Samaria, hitchhiking is a way of life and [a sign of] communal health,” wrote Rabbi Elyakim Levanon, who heads Birkat Yosef Yeshiva in the settlement of Elon Moreh, in a letter to area residents. All the same, he urged “caution and responsibility,” suggesting that either the driver or the hitchhiker should recite a common phrase from a prayer or the Bible, with the other one completing the phrase or reciting the next one. As an alternative, he suggested asking the driver to name the Torah portion of the week. “There are hundreds and thousands of such codes, and this can make both drivers and hitchhikers,” he wrote.

As you can imagine, these recommendations spawned a fair amount of snark.

“It would be easier to ask the driver to say ‘falafel im pilpel’ [falafel with pepper] out loud,” said one commenter, alluding to the absence of the “p” sound in Arabic: pronouncing “p” as “b” is one of the clearest markers of an Arabic accent in Hebrew.

Another commenter added a suggestion of his own: “You can add in ‘mi amar l’mi’ questions too,” while a third said: “Pop quiz for drivers... ;-) I’m for it!”

To contact Shoshana Kordova with column suggestions or other word-related comments, email her at shoshanakordova@gmail.com. For previous Word of the Day columns, go to: www.haaretz.com/news/features/word-of-the-day.

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