Bibi was just trying to be cool. When congratulating Israeli contestant Netta Barzilai for her Eurovision song, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sent her a tweet. It worked in Hebrew. “Netta, Kapara alayich” he wrote. In very colloquial Hebrew, that would translate to “We love you.”
נטע, את כפרה אמיתית. הבאת הרבה כבוד למדינת ישראל! לשנה הבאה בירושלים! 🇮🇱🇮🇱🇮🇱 pic.twitter.com/l0z6QF7lS9
— Benjamin Netanyahu (@netanyahu) May 12, 2018
But Microsoft Bing isn’t cool and apparently doesn’t know Hebrew slang. “Netta, you are a real cow,” Bibi-on-Bing mistranslated to the delight and horror of the Twitter universe.
Bing could be forgiven for mistranslating Bibi’s awkward attempt at hipsterdom. In Hebrew, different placements of accents and different vowels can radically change the meaning of words. Three of the four letters really do spell cow.
Bibi was responding to Eurovision’s winner in her own style. “Toy,” Netta’s quirky song for the contest, included chicken-dance moves, loops and unintelligible vocalizations performed in a Japanese-style kimono and Hello Kitty-like pigtails. It has been hailed as an anthem for LGBTQ rights and a celebration of difference, an assertion of feminist power in an age of #MeToo, and a boost for the popular Israeli mood in a week filled with death on the Gaza border and the controversial opening of the American embassy in Jerusalem.
When her win was announced, Netta called out Kapara Aleychem (“I love you,” in the plural) to the frenzied crowd in Lisbon, where the contest took place. But for Netta, who comes from a Mizrachi (Jews from North Africa and Arabic-speaking countries) background, the expression comes naturally. For Bibi, who comes from an Ashkenazi (Jews from Europe and the West) background, it was more like a clumsy attempt to slum it.
Since this mistranslation, the term has become the butt of Twitter jokes and Facebook memes. It has also become the source of a far-more-serious look at issues of cultural appropriation and the ever-present fault-line between Ashkenazim and Mizrachim.
Literally, the word kapara means “atonement” and appears numerous times in the Bible. It is the root, for example, of the word Kippur in the holiday Yom Kippur. It is also the source of the name of the old Jewish ritual of slinging a chicken (or its monetary value) around your head on the morning before Yom Kippur as a symbolic form of atonement. (And yes, Twitter and Facebook also noticed that Netta’s song has chicken moves.)
According to the Academy for the Hebrew Language, the official body charged with overseeing the continued development of Hebrew, the expression developed hundreds of years ago and is probably related to similar North African Arabic expressions. According to Rubik Rosenthal, a linguist and popular commentator on language and society, who was speaking on Israeli radio, for some North African Jewish communities, and especially in Morocco, it became an expression of love. “Moroccan Jewish mothers would say to their children, ‘Kapara on you,’ as if to say, ‘I love you so much that I will die for you if necessary—I will be your atonement,’” Rubik says.
In modern, colloquial Hebrew, Rosenthal continues, it became a general term of affection. So if you are saying kapaRA, with the accent on the last syllable, you are calling for atonement from God. If you are saying, kaPAra to your child or grandchild, you are telling them how much you love them. If you are saying it to an acquaintance, you’re just being friendly. And if your cabbie or grocer says it to you, he’s trying to be nice or to hit on you.
Rosenthal notes that, in its original form, kapara is a sanctified term with a harsh meaning. It morphed from a religious expression to an expression of motherly love to a popular, if trite, expression of affection. As one of many North African-Jewish expressions that have made it into Israeli mainstream slang since the large waves of Mizrahi immigration in the 1950s, he says, it points to the equalizing role of Hebrew in Israeli society.
Not everyone agrees. Some Mizrahi activists were in no mood to atone for anything or anyone, or to accept anyone else’s atonement, either. Writing in Haoketz, a well-regarded blog on Mizrahi politics and social issues, author and Mizrahi activist Ron Cahlili noted most Ashkenazim, and especially better-educated Ashkenazim, don’t usually use expressions like kaparah, which they regard as lower class or even vulgar. And when they do use them, it can paradoxically add to their social standing. “The ability to juggle between ‘high’ and ‘low,’ between ‘authentic and ‘phony,’ adds a bit of charm, the appearance of breadth of social knowledge,” he explains. “Mizrachim bring to the Israeli melting pot words, images and entire processes, but these words will be acceptable and legitimate—that is, ‘Israeli’—only when an Ashkenazi uses them based on his [assumed] self-awareness and intelligence.”
Mizrachim, Cahlili contends, must cope with linguistic demarcations and a verbal glass ceiling. “When a Mizrahi says kapara, or makes a grammatical mistake, no one thinks that he’s being postmodern…No one expects them to speak Hebrew properly. When they do speak properly, people will say that they are trying to pass for Ashkenazim or that they are hypocrites or phonies.”
Yet blogger and media professional Leora Lupian, also writing in Haoketz, observes that she enjoys saying kapara and is pleased that a term so “beautiful and Jewish” is gaining popularity. “It’s a way to say to the world that there is an Arab Judaism, which isn’t only made up of falafel, humus, or other things that aren’t even really Arab-Jewish. It’s proof that Mizrahi is becoming Israeli.”
Sure, she says, Netanyahu’s comments and the use of kapara by Ashkenazim could be seen as cultural appropriation, “but I see it as a moment of hope, a small step towards the reality that we all hope for, in which Mizrachi Judaism will have a place of honor.”
But Lupian also notes that, when using terms like kapara, she has to be careful, since her light-skin tone might make others think that she is Ashkenazi.
So kapara on all of us. But at least we aren’t contented cows.