I used to drink coffee and tea with two sugars until, about a decade ago, a French friend opened my eyes and educated my palate. He explained that the sweeter the coffee, the higher becomes the sweetness threshold of the coffee-drinker’s palate. Furthermore, the sugar masks the true taste of the drink. “If you really want to experience the true taste of the coffee or tea, drink it without added sugar,” he strongly recommended. I followed his recommendation and found he was indeed correct.
I went to an American high school in The Hague, Holland, for my 10th grade. I discovered that one of the (many) cultural differences between the environment in an American high school and in a kibbutz, from whence I came, was the multitude of compliments and expressions of encouragement. I played on the school volleyball team and was a so-so player—many times I missed the ball or hit it into the net. On the kibbutz, this would have caused disappointed head-shakes from my teammates, and maybe even mockery.
But in American school? I received warm praise: “Good try!” or “Brave jump!” or at least a general “Well done!” I often had to remind myself of these cultural differences so as not to have delusions of volleyball excellence.
For many years Sabras mocked the American inflation of superlatives, its hyperbole and apparent insincerity, forgetting the positive side of social support even at times of failure. “They always say everything is ‘great’ and ‘wonderful’”—we would mock the American ulpan students and visitors to the kibbutz. “What on earth will they say when something really IS great and wonderful?!” we grinned with Israeli roughness.
But in recent years the phenomenon of superlative inflation appears to have crept into Israeli conversation and might even have overtaken that of American society. Some examples:
My younger daughter has taken a “ballet” class for several years. The little girls were very cute and the parents enjoyed seeing them on stage, even though the only true connection with ballet was the dance costumes we had to buy our daughters. After the performance, the parents had a tradition: count how many times the dance teacher proclaimed: “They’re wonderful!”
Nowadays, in Facebook-world, expressions such as “Wonderful!” “Amazing!” “Wild!” “You outdid yourself!” “You own the Internet!” “You’re an inspiration!” have become commonplace, dispensed liberally to anyone who posts a photo of themselves in a restaurant or wearing a new shirt.
In contrast is:
The biblical story of the first encounter between Rebecca and Isaac, which describes how Rebecca fell off her camel when she first beheld her intended. Now that reaction can be described as amazing!
Rona Ramon’s husband, Ilan, Israel’s first astronaut, died when the space shuttle Columbia disintegrated on re-entry into the atmosphere. Six years later, Rona also lost her fighter pilot son Assaf, in service to Israel, when he died in a training accident. With great courage and openheartedness, Rona used her personal tragedy for growth and giving, and now manages the Ramon Foundation to advance science and technology in Israel. She is a woman who can be described as remarkable!
The concourse at Ben-Gurion airport features an exhibition of Israelis who contributed in extraordinary ways to science and humanity, including Nobel Prize laureates, the inventors of Waze navigation system, and even my neighbor at Hoshaya, Professor Moshe Shoham, whose great modesty meant we had no prior knowledge of his groundbreaking achievements. These are people who are an inspiration!
We now know that over-consumption of sugar is a deadly problem in Western societies, and food industries understand they must find ways to reduce the amount of sugar added to the products they sell.
Like sugar, in order to better experience true accomplishments, perhaps we must reduce the exaggerated expressions of appreciation, to a dosage that is of appropriate and balanced proportions? Is it time to declare: Enough with the “Wonderful!”?
Sagi Melamed lives with his family in the community of Hoshaya in the Galilee. He serves as Vice President of External Relations and Development at the Max Stern Yezreel Valley College. Sagi serves as President of the Harvard Club of Israel. He is the author of “Son of My Land” and can be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
This essay first appeared in The Canadian Jewish News.