Justice, Religion

Response to H'zon

(Crossposted to Mah Rabu.)
I hope everyone had a great New Year of the Trees! Several days ago, the Jewish environmental organization H’zon put up (and sent to their email list) a blog post defending their practice of incorrectly referring to the holiday as “Tu B’Shvat”. (h/t to commenter Joel for “H’zon”.)
A review of why this is incorrect: In Hebrew, a word may not begin with two shevas. (A sheva is the vowel that looks like a colon underneath the letter; depending on context, it is pronounced either not at all or like the English schwa.) Therefore, if one of the prefixes b-, k-, or l- is placed on a word beginning with a sheva, the prefix letter gets a chirik (the “ee” vowel, represented by a single dot under the letter) instead of a sheva. For example, the name of the month of Sh’vat (uniquely among all the Hebrew months) begins with a sheva, so when the prefix B- is attached to the month, you get Bishvat (or BiShvat or biShvat or Bi-Shvat or BeeShvat — however you want to write it).
To be clear, this is a Hebrew grammar issue; it is NOT a transliteration issue. The issue has nothing to do with the choice of which English characters are used to represent each Hebrew letter and vowel — the same issue would come up in vocalized Hebrew, in which בִּשְׁבָט is correct and בְּשְׁבָט is incorrect. (In unvocalized Hebrew, of course, the difference is invisible.) As a parallel, suppose your organization sent out an email (in English) around the new year (the tree one or any other one) saying “Shanah tov!” If someone then responded “Actually, it should be ‘shanah tovah’, since ‘shanah’ is a feminine noun, so it should take a feminine adjective”, you wouldn’t reply “Hey, you’re entitled to your preference, but there’s no right or wrong way to transliterate Hebrew into English characters.” It should be obvious that such a reply would be a non sequitur, since noun-adjective agreement is obviously unrelated to transliteration – nothing would be different if the email had been in Hebrew and said שנה טוב, and then was corrected to שנה טובה.
In short, anyone who says this is a transliteration dispute either doesn’t understand the issue (and should defer to those who do) or is intentionally obfuscating.
With that in mind, here’s the story so far:
Around this time last year, I wrote a blog post, “The War on Tu Bishvat”, enumerating and responding to the top five rationalizations for “B’Shvat”/”B’Shevat”, and explaining why they are without merit, followed by a second blog post, “Tu Bishvat Halls of Fame and Shame”, which laid out who was on each side of the issue. I then had some unfortunate online interactions with H’zon, during which one of their staffers acted unprofessionally, and I wrote it up in a third blog post, “Hazon sinks deeper into the hall of shame”.
If you haven’t read those three blog posts (or even if you have), read them now before proceeding further.

H’zon didn’t read them before responding, and as a result, most of the points they make in their defense were already anticipated, and already responded to, a year ago in “The War on Tu Bishvat”. In fact, I think they managed to hit all five. So I’m not going to rehash all of those points again (only some of them).
They referred to me only as a “Jewish blogger”, and didn’t call me out by name (which I appreciate, since this isn’t about me), and likewise I’m not calling out the author of the H’zon post by name (even though the post was signed), because I otherwise respect this individual, and want to make it clear that this isn’t personal.
To be fair, I understand that H’zon may be under a lot of stress right now: they recently merged with the Is’bella Fr’dman J’wish R’tr’t C’nt’r, and it appears to already be a rocky marriage, since Hazon has just doubled down on “Tu B’Shvat”, while IF remains committed to “Tu B’Shevat” (which is even more wrong: while “Tu B’Shvat” may be marginally defensible as a transcription of how some people pronounce the name of the holiday, “Tu B’Shevat” doesn’t even have that going for it). Still, we’ll leave H’zon and Is’bella Fr’dman to work out their own differences; this post is targeted more at those who might be inclined to follow H’zon’s lead and change their style from the correct to the incorrect name of the holiday.
The first half of H’zon’s response is a long and irrelevant digression about academic transliteration, stating that “a certain kind of foolish consistency of academic transliteration can become the hobgoblin of little minds.” The opening paragraphs of this post (and item #1 in “The War on Tu Bishvat”) should make clear why this line of argument is a red herring. Those who are defending Tu Bishvat aren’t insisting on consistency in transliteration, or on any particular transliteration scheme, but only on the rules of Hebrew grammar. H’zon’s attack on the academic transliteration straw man suggests that either they don’t understand the grammatical issue (which is unlikely, because the later part of the post indicates that they do) or they are writing to appeal to those who don’t understand the issue.
H’zon then goes on to outline its reasons for spelling it “Tu B’Shvat”:

1. Finding a way in English to give a sense of the grammar/structure of the Hebrew. My problem with the “correct” transliteration in this instance is that “Bishvat” doesn’t in any way convey to a non-hebrew speaker that בשבט – b’shvat – is a prefix followed by the Hebrew month of Shvat. Tu B’Shvat is, to my mind, a much clearer conveying of what’s going on in the Hebrew than Tu Bishvat.

The idea that one must violate Hebrew grammar in order to convey the sense of Hebrew grammar is certainly a strange one, and one that we would never think of implementing in English. (“Yes, I realize that in a technical sense, ‘went’ would be more academically ‘correct’, but ‘goed’ helps convey that it’s the past tense of ‘go.'”)
And this violation is also entirely unnecessary. As mentioned in item #4 of “The War on Tu Bishvat”, there are plenty of grammatically correct ways to indicate that בשבט is a prefix followed by a month: BiShvat, biShvat, Bi-Shvat, bi-Shvat, Bi’Shvat (if you just can’t quit that apostrophe), Bee-Shvat, and many more. (All of these options, including the incorrect B’Shvat, go above and beyond what would be provided by Hebrew itself, which makes no indication that the bet is a prefix. But as long as English allows for capital and lowercase letters, and punctuation within a word, I agree with H’zon that there’s no reason not to take advantage of these features.)

In addition, properly speaking the first vowel in the word is a long e sound (bee-), although most Hebrew speakers slur that a bit in modern pronunciation. While the proper academic way to represent this vowel is the letter i, in spoken English bi- is never pronounced as bee (think about the words bit and bite). Furthermore, most words in English with bi- as a prefix pronounce it as a long vowel, such as in bilateral, which is not at all what is intended. Therefore, Tu B’Shvat represents a transliteration that a/ is easy to read, b/ visually sets apart the prefix, and c/ allows those not familiar with Hebrew grammar to approximate the typical Hebrew pronunciation.

H’zon can’t seriously think that English speakers outside of academia would have difficulty pronouncing “Bishvat”. Plenty of English words have the letter i pronounced as “ee”. Most of these are loan words from other languages rather than coming from Anglo-Saxon roots, but they have become common English words all the same. No English speakers have trouble pronouncing machine, radio, pizza, or bikini. (Ok, most of those words don’t have the string “bi”, but is there any reason to think the consonant b should make a difference?)
Furthermore, English-speaking Jews who are accustomed to seeing Hebrew transliteration (even if they don’t speak Hebrew) know that it’s a standard convention to read the vowels as in Spanish (or other languages with similar vowel sets), rather than as in English words of older vintage. H’zon knows this – on their own website they feature programs called Siach and the Shmita Project. They don’t feel the need to spell these as “S’ach” or “Shm’ta”, nor do they appear to be concerned that English speakers might pronounce the i vowels as “eye”. (And I’ve never heard anyone pronounce the commonly used nickname of the Israeli prime minister as “bye-bye”.)
Finally, if an English speaker doesn’t pronounce the i in Bishvat as “ee”, the next likeliest pronunciation would be the first syllable rhyming with “fish”, which would still be closer to (or at least no farther from) the Hebrew pronunciation than any reading of “B’Shvat” would be.
For all these reasons, H’zon’s claim that “B’Shvat” would lead readers to the correct pronunciation, while “Bishvat” is an ivory-tower affectation (like “qydwš”) that would baffle non-academic English speakers, is simply not plausible.

2. Common usage. On Google, tu b’shvat and tu b’shevat have between them 619,000 hits, whereas tu bishvat and tu bishevat have 431,600. (This may change over time: if ten years from now the grammar-police succeed in imposing bishvat or bishevat, then there would be some argument for us to cross-over; even then, I’d prefer not to lose a sense of prefix and month, as well as reflecting how a non-native Hebrew speaker pronounces English vowels.) Tu bee-shvat in comparison has fewer than 50 hits.
3. It’s how it was spelled when I was a kid. This last is of course the least defensible academically, and the most persuasive personally. I’ve been celebrating Tu B’Shvat since I was a kid, and I’ve been to or hosted Tu B’Shvat seders every year since 1986; and along the way, I’ve always spelled it – and mostly seen it spelled – Tu b’Shvat.

The idea that practices based on ignorance are justified because most people are ignorant, or because people have been ignorant for a long time, is a troubling epistemological stance for an environmental organization to encourage. Presumably H’zon generally wants its constituents to rethink widespread and longstanding problematic practices on their merits, rather than to leave those practices in place based on their popularity and longevity. But with this irresponsible blog post, H’zon has given its epistemological stamp of approval to anyone who might say “Most Americans drive everywhere and eat factory-farmed meat, and that’s what I’ve been doing since I was a kid. And ‘meat’ gets a whole lot more Google hits than ‘tofu’. So why should I even think about switching to anything different, when that would put me in the minority? If ten years from now the treehugger police succeed in imposing a carbon tax, then there would be some argument for me to think about biking or public transportation, but even then I’m not sure I’d do it.” The thread of anti-intellectualism that runs through H’zon’s response, from the “academic transliteration” straw man to the “grammar-police”, is also playing with fire: this attitude aids and abets those who say “Sure, a bunch of egghead professors may tell us that the climate is changing, but why should I believe them instead of Fox News?”
H’zon then has the audacity to quote President Obama on climate change: “The path will be long and sometimes difficult. But America cannot resist this transition. We must lead it.” Leadership, whether on climate change or on Hebrew grammar, means having the fortitude to do what is right (which includes admitting past mistakes) and to bring others along by example, rather than following the crowd. On this count, H’zon has failed. Rather than wait passively for others to correct themselves on this issue, H’zon has the power (and therefore the responsibility), as a pillar of the Jewish environmental movement, to lead that change. They have chosen to waste this power.
Perhaps H’zon will never evolve on this matter. If so, this post isn’t directed to H’zon, but to all of the environmentally-minded organizations and individuals who respect H’zon (even though this respect is unwarranted on this issue) and follow its lead. Think about the qualities that you want to embody in order to face this generation’s greatest challenges. If H’zon won’t provide leadership on this issue, you have the power to begin on your own.

13 thoughts on “Response to H'zon

  1. On behalf of copy editors everywhere, who have to constantly explain why a particular correction makes something WRONG into something RIGHT, and that everything is not a matter of taste or opinion (although some things are!), thank you, BZ!

  2. Tu BiShvat, capital S. Just call me Tu Bishmael but after a long weekend of sedarim and events this tired Jewish educator is glad Tu BiShFinished.
    And btw I love Nigel’s ending lines in his response:
    “What matters most, of course, is not how you spell it but what you make of it. The Torah is “etz chayim” – the tree of life. Israel is the only state that ended the 20th century with more trees than it began. I live in a town in which its highly secular Jewish mayor – Michael Bloomberg – partnered with Bette Midler (fabulous Jewish lady; I don’t think I can comment on her observance) to launch Million Trees NYC. I don’t think these facts, and the very existence of Tu B’Shvat, are unconnected. Tu B’Shvat – the new year for trees – has changed over time, and not just in its English spelling. We live in different times and places, and we face different challenges.
    “Yet Jewish tradition comes along, once a year, to remind us that all civilization depends on the natural world that sustains us. As we roll along from Rosh Chodesh Shevat to Tu B’Shvat, and on to Purim and Pesach, Jewish tradition teaches not merely that new buds are sprouting and that new life is forming, but also that we have obligations and responsibilities to till and to tend, to conserve and to renew.”

  3. Thanks! Didn’t know before this article (and all it’s trails).
    May Tu BiShvat surpass Tu B’Shvat in Google hits speedily and in our days…

  4. Smacktalking about grammar is one thing (rude but justified for intellectuals with something to prove) but smacktalking about someone’s marriage is just in poor taste period. is’bella and h’zon love each other very very much.

  5. I take issue with your co-opting and perversion of the phrase “new school” (transverse of old-school). This phrase and its history have a specific meaning, appropriate context, and cultural and historical significance that are debased and marginalized by your little quip of a blog title. Under the banner of correctness, you violate every rule implied by your tirades about grammar and respect for culture and tradition. Your corny origins are right there in the title. That fact that you spent G!d knows how many hours writing about this particular topic – insulting your brethren in the process – says something about your emphasis and goals. I mean, you are correct. But you could have been planting trees brother.

  6. And btw I love Nigel’s ending lines in his response:
    “What matters most, of course, is not how you spell it but what you make of it. The Torah is “etz chayim” – the tree of life. Israel is the only state that ended the 20th century with more trees than it began.

    Some people love it, some people see it as blatant and offensive greenwashing. But it’s just a difference in transliteration, really.

  7. I love this. Thank you. More please. Powerful people making false assertions about facts? Smack ’em down, publicly and loudly!

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