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Throwing money at PR

Bridge of Strings, Jerusalem, copyright Rudy Stoler

Bridge of Strings, Jerusalem, copyright Rudy Stoler

Trying to get back into the swing of blogging and simultaneously cleaning off my desktop, I found Ronn Torossian’s Newsmax article, “Israel Welcomes Hollywood.” The Israeli government and the Jerusalem municipality have approved funding for major Hollywood ventures to produces movies and an NBC television series in Israel.

Pretty cool, right? Israel getting onto millions of television and cineplex screens across the world, showing the beauty of Israeli culture to untold audiences. Well, that would be nice, but I doubt it will happen.

The problem is not getting Israel onto the international scene; it’s already there, perhaps too prominently! The problem is that when Israel appears on the international stage, it is usually shown as the evil oppressor fighting against the righteous Palestinian people. Or, Israeli culture appears as a contest between religious radicals and new-age secularists. Increased coverage will not change these trends.

Soviet Jewry activists had a similar problem: Soviet Jews were all over the international news scene, but not the circumstances of their oppression. In fact, the Soviet Union touted its Jewish scientists and celebrities and exposed visiting journalists and politicians to the potential for Jews to thrive in the post-national Communist society. Never mind the fact that such Jews could not practice their religion, speak Hebrew, or even engage in free cultural rituals. This changed over the course of the Soviet Jewry movement, with activists assuming responsibility for briefing and debriefing visitors to the Soviet Union. They provided literature, both scholarly and popular, on the plight of the Jews and helped willing visitors expand their itineraries (even giving them tips on how to shake their Soviet handlers) so that they could experience more of the Soviet Jewish experience.

Israel and the Jerusalem municipality should intensively brief every production crew that expresses interest in this grant money. They should arrange for them to take wide tours of Israel at various points in the proposal and production process. Not just tours run by the Israeli government; the crews should take tours with various organizations so that they can access all parts of Israeli and Palestinian society. The crews need to learn – before they even complete their proposals – that Israel offers an colorful cultural palette, encompassing both beauty and conflict.

Some crews will refuse to accept any informational requirements placed by the Israeli government. Israel doesn’t need to sponsor those crews. They will not portray Israel honestly anyway. But the crews who do accept will undoubtedly help shift audiences’ dialogues about Israel.

Educate, educate, educate.

Lincoln at Gettysburg: Spell-Binding

Why is it that schoolmarms (do people still use that word?) love teaching their pupils to memorize, or at least study, Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg address? How did it become a fundamental element of our culture? I’d wager that people are more likely to correctly complete the line, “Four-score and seven years ago…” than they are to know the name of any hero who fought on that battlefield.

Lincoln did more than eulogize the fallen soldiers at Gettysburg. He took his audience on a cyclical tour of national history and mission. His speech resembles the cyclorama exhibit at the battlefield today, in which viewers stand in the center of a fully-enclosed round mural of the battle, through which a tour guide retells Gettysburg’s stories. In Lincoln’s speech, aptly remembered as “The Gettysburg Address,” the audience returns to that battlefield, that pivotal point in our national history, and recalls the past, present, and future of the American adventure.

gettcyclo-415

The Gettysburg Cyclorama (courtesy of the National Park Service)

PAST: The speech opens with an elegant reference to the signing of the Declaration of Independence. Why not the signing of the Constitution? After all, the Civil War was about slavery and central government, Constitutional matters not mentioned in the Declaration. But Lincoln went beyond the war and recalled our founding principle of human equality. While the meaning of the Constitution and the Civil War would change over the years, the basic impulse of the nation toward equality would not.

This is also a matter of faith. The speech in general is very religious (even though G-d is not mentioned until the last sentence). Despite all questions of legal authority, we as a country believe that a Creator made all men equal, with the inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. In order to re-dedicate the nation – standing, as it were, at Gettysburg – Lincoln returns to the country’s basic faith.

Present: With the national principle stated, Lincoln then proceeds to discuss the purpose of the gathering at Gettysburg. He returns his audience from the halls of Philadelphia to the great war engulfing the nation and the spilled blood still soaking into that solemn battlefield. Another blogger, Nick Morgan, points out that the speech powerfully repeats the rather simple word “here.” Lincoln also drives the location and the immediate objective home with his famous three-tiered line (another powerful repetition): “we cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate, we cannot hallow this ground.” To stand where the heroes of Gettysburg stood, or even to recall the meaning of the Civil War, is truly an incredible burden.

Reading this part of the speech makes you wonder – like the viewer in the middle of the gore-infested cyclorama at Gettysburg – how we can possibly honor the heroes of this war? How can we be fit for that task?

Future: But then Lincoln finishes the speech with an astounding vision, a response to that feeling of impotence: we must dedicate ourselves to completing the task of those who’ve died fighting for our national faith in human equality. If we heed this message, we can ensure

“that these dead have not died in vain: that this nation under G-d shall have a new birth of freedom; and that the government by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

This cyclorama type of speech lends Lincoln’s words the great gift of longevity, of retaining meaning even after the central point – the battlefield itself – has been largely forgotten. Gettysburg is no longer known for shifting the winds in the Civil War; it is known for the great re-dedication of our national faith that occurred in the wake of the battle.

Sources:

Connors, Tiffany. “How the Gettysburg Address Worked.” HowStuffWorks. http://history.howstuffworks.com/historical-events/gettysburg-address5.htm.

“The Gettysburg Cyclorama.” National Park Service. http://www.nps.gov/gett/historyculture/gettysburg-cyclorama.htm.

Morgan, Nick. “The Greatest 250-Word Speech Ever Written.” Public Words. April 15, 2009. http://publicwords.com/the-greatest-250word-speech-ever-written.

Zimmer, John. “The Gettysburg Address: An Analysis.” Manner of Speaking. November 19, 2010. http://mannerofspeaking.org/2010/11/19/the-gettysburg-address-an-analysis.

Vocabulary: The Case for Simplicity over Variety

Grade-school teachers often assess students’ writing on the breadth  of their vocabulary, rather than on how they utilize the vocabulary they know.

Vocabulary is a skill well worth teaching, especially in English because we have an enormous array or words carrying similar meanings. An English thesaurus can seem cavernous, constantly taking you on new routes to discovering words you never knew existed.

Yet, obsessing over vocabulary can make us forget that language is an art form. Art can be beautiful without flourishes. You don’t need an immense variety of words to write a beautiful sentence. Prose with the simplest vocabulary often makes the deepest impact.

Rabbi Abraham Heschel, presenting Judaism and World Peace award to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

(courtesy of Library of Congress)

Abraham Joshua Heschel in his The Prophets is an impressive master of simple vocabulary, particularly in his verbs:

“What impairs our sight are habits of seeing as well as the mental concomitants of seeing. Our sight is suffused with knowing, instead of feeling painfully the lack of knowing what we see. The principle to be kept in mind is to know what we see rather than to see what we know.”

Notice that he repeats two incredibly simple verbs: to see and to know. They form the core of these sentences and Heschel builds the rest of the phrases on top of them, allowing the reader to focus on the connection between sight and knowledge.

In truth, Heschel might have refined his point further by delving into different types of sight and knowledge. The concepts of myopia and intuition seem particularly relevant to his argument. But such complicated vocabulary would distract readers from the depth of his point, leaving them confused and searching for the core elements of the sentences.

My point: Don’t throw the thesaurus away, but be careful not to disregard the basics.

In recognition of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday, learn more about his philosophical and activist ally, Abraham Joshua Heschel.

Writing Book Reviews – Part One

I’m not sure if there is a technical name for the material that follows the main articles in an academic journal. Flip the journal past the last headline article and you often find a selection of brief dispatches, opinion pieces, organizational news, and/or book reviews.

Typically, unless you’re looking at a top-selling journal, the book reviews are reader submissions, not staff pieces. And they’re usually not peer-reviewed. In fact, writing a book review is often the best way for an up-and-coming academic to contribute to the discipline.

Since book reviews are in the back of the journal and they don’t usually earn their authors cover-page billing, it’s tempting to pass them off as unimportant. Bad idea. We’ve all read our share of thoroughly time-wasting — or worse, pathetically uninformed — book reviews. Besides adding little to the discipline, poorly-written book reviews earn disrespect from all authors (not just the author whose book you’re critiquing) and show how little you care about the topic. Write them well or don’t write them. Or, as we say at Letter Perfect Copyediting, if your paper’s worth writing, it’s worth writing it well!

There are two main types of book reviews: (1) general reviews that often get published in book review-only journals and newspapers (and now news-websites), and (2) academic reviews that usually appear in the back of research journals. The rest of this installment will focus on the general reviews and hopefully I’ll write a piece on academic reviews by the end of the week.

Let’s take a look at a top-of-the-line general review of Pinsker Kaganovich’s (a.k.a. Der Nister) Regrowth: Seven Tales of Jewish Life Before, During, and After Nazi Occupation (trans. Erik Butler). The review is written by Naya Lekht, a UCLA Ph.D. candidate in Slavic Languages and Literatures.

The beauty of this book review is that Lekht’s style is more storytelling than description. She talks about the author’s background and legacy and draws the reader into the text with an engaging few paragraphs about why this book was written and why the topic is relevant to readers today.

As her story continues, Lekht selects a few of the most notable features of the author’s style and places them in their historical context. One of the short stories tells of Der Nister’s wartime nationalism; another reflects his “powerful call for vengeance.” This is where description really helps fill out the story, as an aid to the story-telling. Even when Lekht describes the author’s word choice and imagery she ensconces them in the story of the Der Nister’s struggle with his times and his literary development.

 The lesson: when you sit down to write a general book review, don’t think about it as a book review. Dry reviews are a thing of the past, now that anybody can get a decent gist of the book and its quality by looking up the reviews on Amazon.com. To make it interesting, to gain the readers’ attention, you have to tell an engaging story.

The reviewer sampled here praised Der Nister’s book and offered no criticism. In a general review, this is acceptable, but only if you really love the book. Otherwise, be sure to point out its flaws, but do so within the context of the story. How might you explain the author’s biases and flaws? What did the author miss that readers like yourself want? Why might the publisher have used a shabby print format?

The author, book, and publisher can all be characters in your story and it might require some research to develop them responsibly. But done properly, a well-written book review can engage the reader from start to finish and can build the reviewer’s reputation as a thoughtful contributor to the knowledge of their field.

ASMEA and Jewish holidays wrap-up

Thank you to everyone who participated in the ASMEA (Association for the Study of the Middle East and Africa) conference over this past weekend. I had a ball and spread the gospel of copy editing to many outstanding scholars: there’s no sense in pouring your blood and sweat into researching and writing about a topic only to publish it with mistakes that distract readers, make them grumble, or drown out your arguments.

Now that ASMEA is over and the Jewish holidays are finished until Hannukah, I’ll be back to posting as soon as possible!

Simplicity and Rhetorical Power; Writing Seasons

An absolute must-read this season for anyone interested in Israeli politics is Etgar Keret’s mid-September column at Tablet Magazine,Summer Heat“. The simplicity of its structure–a reflection on the Summer 2011 social protests, as told through the experiences of a child–masks a vibrant and elegant commentary on the beginnings of a revolution that swept the country this year.

Ordinarily I’d give the author full credit and kudos, and I imagine he should receive much of the recognition. But as this article appeared on Tablet Magazine as a translation, I am also compelled to recognize the superb translation skills of Sondra Silverston.

One passage in particular stands out above all the rest for its eloquence:

In retrospect, the fact that almost all of the various groups in this divided society could stand shoulder to shoulder and shout the same slogans is nothing short of a miracle. In the not very distant past, those same groups had occupied the same space only to clash and hurl insults at each other.

The concept of unity is expressed not only in the content of these sentences, but also in their translator’s word choice: the key words and phrases all begin with the letter ‘s': “society,” “stand shoulder to shoulder,” “shout the same slogans,” “short,” and “same groups had occupied the same space.” By repeating the letter over and over again–literary scholars call this alliteration–the tone of the sentence expresses unity, a unity so glaring it nearly smacks the reader in the face.

Alliteration can signal a variety of meanings (e.g., unity, rapidity, conflict), but it primarily identifies the alliterated words as the key movers of the text. In this paragraph, the alliterated words (listed above) all imply an astonishing, visible unity. The fact that an “s” also begins the word “summer,” the primary setting of the author’s reflections and a constant trope of the article, constantly revives and reinforces the alliteration throughout the text.

On the notion of setting, there is another writing lesson to be found in this article. The author returns to his setting in every paragraph, pulling the reader back to the focal point of the article: the significance of the summer 2011 protests. Many authors (myself included) have a tendency to digress and to neglect their main setting, and it is important to recognize that in a persuasive, emotional appeal such as “Summer Heat,” power often derives from staying perfectly on-target.

Grammar Lesson of the Day: How to Write Seasons

When writing the names of the seasons–winter, spring, summer, autumn/fall–most people don’t quite understand when to use capital letter and when to use lowercase ones. As a general rule of thumb, Kate Turabian’s A Manual for Writers (a handy reference for copy editors like myself) suggests not capitalizing the names of the seasons in text, though you should capitalize names of days of week, months, and holidays.

On the other hand, when the name of a season appears as part of a formal name, such as the Summer Olympics, Winter Wonderland Park, or Baseball Spring Training, you use capital letters. Some people also capitalize the names of seasons in slightly less formal names, such as Autumnal Equinox, or Winter Solstice, though this use is not universal.

Also, Kate Turabian cautions writers that, even though they should not capitalize the names of the seasons in the main text, they should always capitalize them in the references and notes sections when describing publication dates.

For more on the subject of how to properly use the season names, and for the difference between “autumn” and “fall,” see Geoff Pope’s article on Grammar Girl.

Reference:

Turabian, Kate L., A Manual for Writers of Research Papers, These and Dissertations, 7th ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007). See sections 19.2.5 and 22.1.2.

The Hazards of Libel – How You Write Counts

What is libel? According to Webster’s, libel refers to “a written or spoken statement or a representation that gives an unjustly unfavorable impression of a person or thing,” or the act of producing such a statement or representation.

How do we draw the line between libel and opinion? Frequently, this boils down to the copy editing. A carelessly attributed statement here or an improper tone there, and you could overstep the line into libel, an act with potentially criminal implications.

The trick is that an unjust statement presented as fact is potentially libelous, but an expression of opinion is not. Opinion is generally protected under free speech. Negative opinions can be written off as slander, but that’s a whole separate issue.

In grammar school, we teach students not to write “In my opinion,…” in their essays. We tell them the readers will know that their statements are opinion and it’s not necessary to constantly state as such. In truth however, it can be difficult to tell where reporting evidence ends and stating opinions begins. It’s often the copy editor’s job — as a fresh pair of eyes who doesn’t know the author’s intention before reading the text — to make sure the difference is easy to distinguish and protect the author from unwarranted accusations!

Check out this link for an overview of how libel can work its way into your writing: http://www.copyediting.com/Article.php?art_num=4502

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