The Rain in Spain

The Rain in Spain


 The Israel Review of Arts and Letters - 1997/104
"Barad yarad bidrom sfarad"
How "The Rain in Spain" Fell in Eretz-Israel

Dan Almagor*


Cast at the premiere of "My Fair Lady", with impresario Giora Godik and Prime Minister Levi Eshkol




The Hebrew Eliza




The Ascot scene




Eliza, Higgins and Pickering

Certain dates in the history of the Hebrew theatre in Israel can be termed milestones. Most are linked with the founding of new theatrical groups or the dedication of new halls. But something rather different from all such serious dates occurred some 33 years ago, in February, 1964. It had to do, in fact, with the lighter side of the theatre: the première of a large-scale musical of the kind staged on Broadway or in the West End of London. This was the Hebrew-language production of "My Fair Lady" at the national theatre, Habimah.

Whoever had the good fortune to be present at that festive event, which took place in the presence of the prime minister of Israel, Levi Eshkol, and other members of the government, recalls the prevailing atmosphere of a historic occasion. The Israeli version of the world-famous musical replicated the Broadway staging; the director, the choreographer and the set designer were all brought over from New York. But the very fact that it was possible to see in Hebrew such a spectacular professional Broadway show, with more than 100 actors, singers and dancers, performing against the background of gorgeous sets which had also been seen in the great theatres of New York and London, filled the Israeli spectator with special excitement.

Added to the pioneer feeling on the part of all the participants in the production was the fact that, for at least two of the central figures, the show truly had the nature of a first attempt. Despite the premire being staged at the national theatre, this was not a production by Habimah or by any other repertory theatre (the Habimah stage happened to be free only because the company had left to participate in a festival overseas). "My Fair Lady" was produced by Giora Godik, an independent impresario who had brought to Israel a number of foreign artists and troupes. Still, Godik had never before produced in the theatre, and certainly not on such a scale.

Even more striking was the fact that the female star, Rivka Raz, playing the part of Eliza Doolittle, was not a well-known actress at all. The sum of her stage experience prior to "My Fair Lady" had been a small singing role in a cabaret staged a few months previously in a tiny basement on Tel Avivs Ben-Yehuda Street. She had played opposite two veteran comedians, Shai K. Ophir and Shimon Israeli; the cabaret was entitled Shin-Shin, from the first names of the two male actors, which both began with the Hebrew letter shin. It was the good luck of the 22 year-old Rivka who had grown up in a Jerusalem neighbourhood, the daughter of a sephardi family, and had served as a lieutenant in the Israeli army that a musical skit about 20 minutes long had been included in that satirical cabaret. The skit concerned a sensational British scandal of the time, a political and erotic triangle whose three sides were the British defence minister, John Profumo, the Soviet military attach in London, and the famous call-girl, Christine Keeler.

How did this tabloid affair become linked with "My Fair Lady"? Israelis privileged to see the show in London or New York during those years came home with excited tales of the new musical whose songs were frequently broadcast on the radio. Also familiar to the Israeli audience was the plot of George Bernard Shaws Pygmalion, the play from which Lerner and Loewe adapted their musical, and which had been given a successful production in Tel Aviv a decade earlier. When I wrote the material for that satiric cabaret I allowed myself to use three characters from the play: Henry Higgins, Colonel Pickering and the flower-seller Eliza Doolittle, who became the models for the characters of Profumo, the Soviet colonel and Christine Keeler. I included in the satirical framework some of the songs from the musical, to which I gave Hebrew rhymes recalling the London scandal. The audience laughed, and Giora Godik, who happened to be present at one of the basement performances, decided on the strength of the unknown young girls performance in that skit, that he had at last found his Hebrew Eliza Doolittle and could go on to realize his longstanding dream: to stage "My Fair Lady" in Hebrew. And on the strength of that parody I was privileged to be invited to translate the splendid musical into Hebrew.

But at this point the problems began. The play and the musical are based on the ancient Greek legend of the sculptor Pygmalion, who fell in love with a statue he had made of a girl, Galatea, and tried to breathe life into her stone image. In the modern version, as is well-known, the sculptor is transformed into an expert phonetician, Professor Henry Higgins, who makes a wager with another phonetician, Colonel Pickering, his guest from British India. Higgins bets Pickering that within a short time he can succeed in changing a simple flower-seller with a common manner of speaking into a lady who could effortlessly navigate her way through London society. Higgins not only boasts that he can identify every dialect and accent in the British sub-species of the English language (not to mention the entire universe), but he also maintains that he can recognize every geographical point where a given speaker of English has ever sojourned in his life. He can perform this feat by analyzing the speakers vocabulary, and even more to the point, by the way he pronounces his words.

We have, in other words, a play dealing with language living, spoken language rich in dialects and manners of pronunciation. Each such pronunciation is linked with a point on the globe as well as with a particular socio-economic level and a particular educational history. Higgins can immediately detect whether the coachman, the charwoman or the flower-seller was born and brought up in one area of London, or another, a few streets away. When Eliza Doolittle is dressed in fine clothes suited to a respectable venue like Royal Ascot or Mrs. Higgins drawing room, she may suddenly surprise the listener with a vulgar word or phrase that gives everyone gooseflesh and suggests low breeding.

How on earth to translate all this into Hebrew? As we hear in Professor Higgins song in the musical, "Why Cant the English...," ours is a strange, even terrifying language: "The Hebrews learn it backwards, which is absolutely frightening!"

True, Hebrew is rich in slang, dialects and allegorical nuance, as befits one of the worlds oldest tongues. In contemporary spoken Hebrew and Israeli slang we can even point to many words and expressions borrowed from English. Nevertheless, most Israeli slang derived from three other languages which were not especially familiar in Covent Garden or Lissom Grove, and certainly not at the time of Shaw and Higgins: Yiddish, Russian and Arabic. However, a Russian colonel appeared in the parody of "My Fair Lady," and in the vicinity of Lissom Grove today one will find more Arab restaurants than pubs or fish-and-chip shops. But who would find it believable to hear Alfred Doolittle or his daughter Eliza speaking in the rich, colourful idiom of a Jerusalem taxi driver?

Moreover, in many larger countries it is indeed possible to pinpoint a persons origins and abode from listening to his speech. Every area has its characteristic pronunciation and vocabulary. But in a compact land like Israel, where one can go in about an hour to an hour and a half from Tel Aviv to Beersheba in the south, Jerusalem in the east or Haifa in the north, and where there are no isolated villages lost somewhere in the mountains or the desert, how could one find Hebrew equivalents for the styles of speech of the various characters in the play?

Of course there are clear distinctions between the dialects of Hebrew speakers who come from Yemen or Russia, Morocco or Romania, Iraq or Bulgaria, Iran, Poland or the United States. Certainly there is no call for the talents and expertise of Professor Zltan Karpathy, the Hungarian expert in phonetics, and pupil of Henry Higgins (the "ruder pest from Budapest"), to outline the Hungarian origins of Hebrew speakers who have been living in Israel for decades. Speakers of Arabic may reveal themselves as Egyptian, or Syrian, and certain Bedouin tribes exhibit linguistic characteristics of their own. However, profound differences in pronunciation among Hebrew speakers in different areas of Israel scarcely exist especially not since the levelling effect of radio and television.

It is true that in biblical times there were distinctions of pronunciation of the Hebrew language among some of the tribes. The sons of Ephraim (Judges 12:6) paid dearly for the special way they had of pronouncing the letter shin in the word shibboleth (how would they have pronounced the title of the show Shin-shin? as Sin-sin?). Even on the cusp of the 20th century, some teachers of Hebrew in the old-established Galilee villages tried to instill in their pupils a distinctive pronunciation, different from that in other regions of the country. They asked them to pronounce the letter bet, even when it was soft and sounded as a v, as if it were a b. Thus their pupils were made to say the word zebubim, instead of the accepted pronunciation zevuvim ("flies"). This artificial and esoteric experiment did not last long. However, even today one can pick out a native of Jerusalem owing to his way of pronouncing a word such as matayim ("two hundred"): the veteran Jerusalemite will say meatayim. Elderly residents of Rehovot, scarcely 20 minutes distance from Tel Aviv, can also be identified: not only because they use a number of Hebrew words exclusive to Rehovot, introduced by Hebrew teachers at the beginning of the century such as local coinage, dupia, a hose for watering the garden, composed of the words du ("two") and pia (the "mouth" of the hose) but also because of the way they say the plural of ticket for theatre or bus. The citizen of Rehovot will say kartsim instead of kartissim, the linguistically correct version. Taken all together, though, such words are very scarce and could not have been of any help in translating "My Fair Lady."

For the sake of scholarly accuracy we must admit the existence of an area in which even today linguistic differences can be traced among the various settlements in Israel. This has to do with childrens games and slang expressions related to them. Certain terms and ways of pronouncing them differ from town to town, and children have been using them for 100 years at least. So, for example, some children use the ancient and correct Hebrew word gulot when they refer to the game of marbles. Elsewhere children are accustomed to use the word julot, and in other localities, balorot. Various types of coloured marbles have various names in various places. One, rassiya, is derived from the Arabic raissiyye. This is the finest and most expensive, the chief and emperor of marbles. We hear the influence of the Arabic rassiye, derived from ras, cognate to Hebrew rosh, or "head" or perhaps that of French words, recalling the last decades of the previous century when that language was spoken in some of the early settlements (for example, gazoza, a marble with air bubbles trapped inside it, in the spirit of the carbonated soda, gazoz, Israels most popular drink until Coca Cola arrived and elbowed it out of everyday speech). Or shever haeven, a game in which children draw squares on the ground, keeping one foot steady while moving from square to square with the other. In one town this game is called even ("stone"), in another shaish ("marble"), and in my childhood home of Rehovot it is called, with exclusivity to that locale, pashta (also the name of one of the Hebrew cantillation marks, but with no relation to it). When children quarrel among themselves, in most parts of Israel they call the child who is being "sent to Coventry" a name related to the word for a dog: kalba or kalabusta (kelev "dog"), or in an Arabic derivation tchilba. In Rehovot alone, for generations now, there is another pejorative which has nothing to do with the canine family, and whose origins are shrouded in mystery: darringa. Naturally, there are many more locutions associated with childrens games and street songs which have preserved the regional distinctions that gave rise to them. Some originated in amusing corruptions of foreign words, which may even be difficult to identify.

Fair enough: but how many childrens games does Eliza Doolittle refer to in the course of the play I was asked to translate?

Before I began my translation, doubts also arose in the producers mind: perhaps it would be impossible to represent in Hebrew the divergent styles of speech of Londons neighbourhoods? Would the Israeli audience have difficulty following the thread of a plot that depends on those divergences? Would it perhaps be best to adapt the plot to Israeli circumstances, to change the setting from London to Tel Aviv, as our commercial theatre had done with a number of popular comedies? Let us say for arguments sake that a professor of Hebrew at the university in Jerusalem falls in love with a Yemenite flower seller. The suggestion was rejected at once. First of all, we knew that the authors agents would never licence such an adaptation. Second, the play was already known to the Israeli audience, primarily through the songs broadcast on the radio. And since it had been prepared to accept the parody based on these songs, it would view such a change as barbaric in the extreme. The third reason was the success of the play, Pygmalion, which years previously had proved that the Israeli audience not only experienced no difficulty following Shaws plot, but even enjoyed it. And fourth the most amusing reason of all, and possibly the most Israel-specific one a Yemenite flower girl, if one could find one would speak Hebrew with an authentic sephardi accent, closer to the way King Solomon and the prophets pronounced the words of the Bible than most university professors of Hebrew, who migrated to Israel from eastern or central Europe. Their Hebrew is marked with a foreign accent which can be so extreme as to grate on the ear. In other words, if we had copied the plays plot along Israeli lines and set it in Rehovot, Tel Aviv or Jerusalem, Eliza the flower seller could have taught the professor with the heavy German or Russian accent how to speak proper Hebrew and not the reverse! And so we rejected that possibility out of hand.

Still, the problem remained: how to put into the mouths of London characters the various Hebrew styles and modes of expression that would distinguish them one from the other, as the play demands? What sort of slang to use when we could not use living Hebrew slang, most of which was derived, as we have seen, from Arabic or Russian?

The person whose advice I sought in this connection was Professor Haim Blanc, an expert on nomenclature, who was born in the United States. Blanc arrived in Israel as a young student before the state was established. On the outbreak of the War of Independence in 1948 he was seriously wounded. He was blinded in both eyes and confined to a wheelchair, and remained so for the rest of his life. Nevertheless, he became one of the best-loved instructors at the Hebrew University, as well as an internationally-recognized authority on Hebrew dialects.

Professor Blancs advice surprised me: "Of course there is no need to impose Israeli-sephardi slang on Eliza Doolittle," he told me. "Try using childrens language. Go to kindergartens, listen to the mistakes they make when they speak Hebrew. Then try to put those mistakes in the mouths of the characters when theyre talking Cockney. This will create a style of incorrect Hebrew with comical but logical errors. The logic will be that of the speech of children whose native tongue is Hebrew but who make errors in syntax. And when they lack a word, they try to coin one on the basis of words already familiar to them."

This suggestion by the "Professor Henry Higgins of Jerusalem" seemed very apt to me. It freed me and the plays Hebrew version from any resemblance to slang the authentic, realistic, common Hebrew of the Israeli street and provided a graceful, humorous equivalent for the style of most of the plays characters. In fact, my word-coining actor friend, Shraga Friedman, and I (he collaborated with me on translating some of the plays prose passages) together created a new invention. This was a species of "Hebrew Cockney," a new slang which did not quite sound Israeli but was comprehensible to anyone in the audience: especially since some of the London flower-sellers mistakes were known to audience members from their children at home.

After discovering this stylistic key the greatest challenge before us was the Hebrew translation of one of the best-known lines in the show, "The rain in Spain stays mainly in the plain." Following in Bernard Shaws footsteps, the American adapter, Alan Jay Lerner, tried to find a sentence that Higgins could use to teach his pupil to pronounce English correctly. In Elizas Cockney speech the first words sound like "The Rhine in Spine." Shraga and I wondered what might be a Hebrew equivalent for that well-known sentence. We knew that both audience and critics would be waiting to see how we dealt with that crucial line. At first we thought of an equivalent whose every word contained the difficult letter h, which Eliza would pronounce as a soft unaspirated a. It began "Hayom yehom hayam" "today the sea shall roar" words which Eliza would pronounce as Ayom yeom ayam. But the solution did not satisfy us, especially because it had nothing to do with Spain, and no connection with the excited flamenco that Higgins, Pickering and Eliza perform the night they return from the ball, where Eliza managed to fool even the famous Hungarian savant.

And then, as I sat very late one evening in my Jerusalem flat, the telephone rang. On the line I heard my collaborators rich, familiar tones. Barad! ("Hail") he cried excitedly.

It was midsummer at the time. I glanced out of the window. It could not be denied that 60 kilometres separated Jerusalem from Tel Aviv but hail!? In the middle of August?

"What are you talking about, Shraga? Hail? Where?

"In Spain!" he replied. I thought he had gone mad.

But it all came clear after a few seconds. It turned out that Shraga had just come home after acting in a lengthy performance at Habimah, and climbed into a hot, almost boiling bath to wash away the days sweat and refresh himself a bit before he went to sleep. Perhaps the waters excessive heat evoked an association with something cold. Ice. Hail. Suddenly an idea was born: barad, the Hebrew word for hail, rhymes with sfarad, the word for Spain, which even appears in the Bible. It seems that Archimedes was not the only man who made a discovery while lying in his bath. But, unlike Archimedes, Shraga did not dash naked out to the street. He lifted the receiver and rang me right away in order to let me in on his discovery. and so, during that telephone conversation, we came up with another Hebrew word that rhymed with barad and sfarad: yarad, or "fell." On the spot we assembled a Hebrew sentence which subsequently became familiar to every person in Israel, Barad yarad bidrom sfarad haerev ("Hail fell this evening in southern Spain"). The Hebrew-speaking Eliza at first pronounced the letter r like the guttural Hebrew letter khaf rather like the letter j or g in South America (as in the words "Jos" and "Argentina," or the ch in the Scottish "loch." Only after tough, intensive training from Professor Higgins, who did not refrain from placing in her mouth some glass marbles (or gulot, or julot, or balorot) instead of the pebbles which Demosthenes crammed into his mouth, did Eliza succeed in pronouncing correctly the consonant r.

And only after we had invented our famous Hebrew sentence did I remember that some of the mediaeval Spanish Hebrew poets used to rhyme sfarad with yarad and even with barad (as in a hail of arrows in battle). One of the best-known laments of that era opened with the line "Aha, ki yarad al sfarad ra min hashamayim" ("Ah, for evil from the skies fell upon Spain").

After we had cracked the toughest line of all, translating the rest of the play seemed relatively easy. For Elizas much-loved song, "Wouldnt it be loverly," I found a Hebrew equivalent which was not only a bit of familiar slang but also had the flavour of the original: "Yofi li " ("Its lovely for me"). For the translation of the most important word in Alfred Doolittles song, "With a Little Bit of Luck," I of course used the Hebrew word mazal ("luck") which is familiar throughout the world through the Jewish blessing Mazal Tov ("Good Luck"). Here I added to the word mazal the Hebrew slang expression tip-tipa (since tipa is "a drop," then tip-tipa is "a tiny little drop"). The recurring line in Alfred Doolittles song thus became tip-tipat mazal ("with a tiny drop of luck"). Only one problem remained in Doolittle Pres ditty, "Get Me to the Church on Time." A church in Tel Aviv? Of course I could have used the Hebrew word huppa, or "wedding canopy," but I am not certain that even a liberal thinker with broad intellectual horizons like Mr Doolittle would willingly accept such a solution. But with a tip-tipa of mazal, the Hebrew word hatuna, or "wedding," did the trick.

The Hebrew production of "My Fair Lady" met with resounding success. To my regret I was not able to be present on opening night, since I was working on my doctorate at the University of California. But to my surprise, within a fortnight after the premire I received two greetings from well-known personalities with whom I had never previously exchanged a word. Abba Eban, at that time serving as Israels foreign minister, came to Los Angeles and sang both of Henry Higgins songs to the Israeli consul and to me from memory, without a single mistake, and very much in character. It turned out that he had seen the show twice and confessed he had always harboured a secret wish to play Henry (Higgins, not Kissinger.)

The second person to give me greetings from Israel was the commander-in-chief of the Israel Air Force, who had landed in Los Angeles for several hours, awaiting a change of planes. By chance he was told that I was studying in Los Angeles, and he took the trouble to ring from the airport even though we had never met before and tell me what a sensation there had been at the premire. A typical gesture on the part of Ezer Weizman, now president of the State of Israel.

The Hebrew "My Fair Lady" ran to packed houses for over 500 performances. After Habimah returned from its overseas tour, the producer rented a big old cinema called the Alhambra, in Jaffa. There he continued to mount performances of the show. The Alhambra had been the most elegant venue Arab Jaffa had to offer before the War of Independence. And 900 years earlier, in the city of Granada, where the Alhambra itself stood, a Hebrew poet rhymed for the first time the words barad and sfarad.

Translated by Jay Shir

* Dan Almagor, born in Israel in 1935, has adapted and translated more than 100 plays for the Hebrew stage, including Shakespeares "Comedy of Errors" "Fiddler on the Roof," "The King and I," and "Guys and Dolls." He is a researcher of literature and folklore, and has taught Hebrew at universities in Israel, Britain and America.

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