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In the 1930s, when the first ever Jewish bus company was set up in Israel, so the story goes, they went to the poet Chaim Nachman Bialik to suggest a name for the company. A Jewish bus company was obviously a big deal, because one didn't go and bother the great Bialik for any little thing.

What kind of bus company is this going to be, Bialik asked them. A cooperative, they told him. Bialik went and thought about it, and came back with the name "Egged". A stroke of genius... In the Bible, the word 'aguda' denotes a BAND of people or a bunch of herbs or suchlike. And the word 'egged' -- from the same root as 'aguda' -- is found in the Talmud, meaning the BAND that Jews tie around the lulav, myrtle and willow branches used in the Festival of Sukkot. A word that many a well-educated Jew 75 years ago would have known. 'Egged' would henceforth evoke the cooperation of the BAND of plucky Jewish bus-drivers proudly driving their buses at breakneck speed through the streets of Tel Aviv.


Few Hebrew words have become as popular and indispensible to Jews -- and to a good few non-Jews -- as 'chutzpah'. How to translate it into English is quite a problem. Breath-taking cheek, maybe? Kept alive in Yiddish down the centuries, chutzpah has come to be something that really isn't that bad, in small amounts --nowadays, at any rate.

But it wasn't always this way. The Talmud warns darkly that in time to come, when the Messiah is imminent, the world will become a frightening and bewildering place. Children will turn on parents. Inflation will soar. And 'chutzpah' will mount. By 'chutzpah', the Talmud meant 'insolence, savagery'. The sister adjective of chutzpah, chatzif, was used to describe savage dogs.

In Yiddish, at least in recent times, chutzpah has become muted -- like so many other unpleasant words (mazik and mamzer come to my mind). Parents would shake their heads and describe their neighbors' children as 'chutzpedik' ( 'cheeky' ).

But scream 'Chutzpah!!!' at an Israeli, and he or she will not be amused.


Yisrael 'Israel' seems like a straightforward enough word, but it isn't. It's been the name of an individual, the name of a people, and only very recently the name of a state.

In the Bible, Yisrael is first the personal name awarded to the patriarch Jacob after he wrestles with an angel. The name means, loosely, 'overpowers a mighty force'. Soon, as his descendants the Hebrews multiply in their Egyptian enslavement, the name Bnei Yisrael 'sons of Israel' -- or simply Yisrael -- comes to denote the emerging Israelite nation. Meanwhile, the Bible usually refers to the Promised Land as Eretz Kenaan 'the Land of Canaan'. Moving on a few hundred years, the Israelites split into two kingdoms upon the death of Solomon; the 10 tribes of the northern kingdom call themselves Yisrael while the southern kingdom, based around jerusalem, calls itself Yehuda (Judea) after the dominant tribe of the southern region. And still the country is generally called Eretz Kenaan.

When, in the 8th century BCE, the northern kingdom of Yisrael is crushed by the invading Assyrians and the 10 tribes exiled into oblivion, the name Yisrael seems to have had it -- the surviving Israelites will call themselves Yehudim 'Judeans' (from whence the name 'Jew').

However, the name Yisrael survived. Jews began calling the Holy Land 'Eretz Yisrael', and Yisrael also came to denote 'Jew', in other words a singular noun, like American, Arab. That's how Yisrael was used in the Talmud (200-500 CE), and Jews continued to refer to a fellow Jew as Yisrael and to their motherland as 'Eretz Yisrael' right down to modern times.

Then came May 1948. A Jewish state was to be declared, quite unexpectedly. And its government had to decide on a name for it. Two names were debated: Zion and Yisrael. Some felt that the name Yisrael was unsuitable, but on the insistence of the Jewish state's first premier, David Ben Gurion, the choice fell on Yisrael. And its citizens, be they Jewish or not, would be called 'Yisraelim'. One more twist in a long tale.

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Last Modified February 12, 2006