Columns - 2003

    Signs of life

    by Doug Brook
    Deep South Jewish Voice Columnist

    Recently in New York, I ruminated on the fact that most people don't know what ruminating is. Some people think it has to do with room decorations, but those people obviously don't have much practice thinking in general.

    After that, I looked at the Challah French Toast on the menu and thought of how many Californians pronounce the start of challah like Tchaikovsky rather than as if they got a hairball thanks to their Himalayan mixed breed.

    It makes sense that people would have trouble with this. Especially when you consider the advent of the latest craze brought to you by the little-spoken-of-because-most-of-us-don't-know-if-it-really-exists,-including-me Asian Jewish community. After centuries of steeping, they have come up with the greatest life-giving brew since your grandmother conjured the definitive chicken soup.

    And they even named it appropriately. Chai. (Chai is Hebrew for "life", for those of you who passed fourth grade religious school but shouldn't have.)

    However, they pronounce it like the beginning of Tchaikovsky's name, rather than like they're clearing a hairball then shouting as if burning their hand on a gas stove.

    Similarly, in the musical I'm currently rehearsing, ("On the Twentieth Century", running February 21 through March 16, tickets are going fast) there's an ongoing debate about the pronunciation of Chi-Town (ancient Esparanto for "Chicago", the Golden Globe winner for best comedy, though it's not really a comedy). After several hours, we determined that "town" does, in fact, rhyme with "gown".

    Okay. We're actors, but we're not THAT dumb. Seriously, some pronounce it "shy," some pronounce it "Tchai," and others pronounce it "Tchaikovsky," (this final group being those who don't know the difference between ruminate and a roommate).

    Of course, any self-respecting Chicagoan will tell you the real way "Chi-town" is pronounced. "It's not," said a couple of Chicagoans who requested anonymity as they mixed cement into a size ten-and-a-half.

    However, despite the potential of having exceedingly heavy footwear forced on me before a midnight swim, for the sake of this column and in true rabbinic tradition, we'll add another possibility and say that Chi-Town is pronounced like the Hebrew chai. Chai, as a word, originated in the ancient Hebraic teaching "life is like a hairball," a phrase often used by the Israelites while they were slaves to the cat-worshiping Egyptians.

    To find many other similar signs of life hidden in our everyday world, one must look no further than the dictionary.

    Well, maybe a little further than the dictionary. The spelling in the dictionary is a bit off for these entries. I tried to contact Webster about these glaring mistakes, but was told that Emanuel Lewis doesn't take those queries anymore.

    But have no fear. I'll save you from burning twenty extra calories lifting your unabridged dictionary, and provide you with a few good examples.

    Who could forget the lively writing of the recently late Chaim Potok? "The Chosen" (the classic novel, play, and motion picture), "The Unchosen" (the classic novel about the boy who was always picked last in gym class), and many other unforgettable works (judging by my extensive research from searching for "Potok" on His prolificity was notable everywhere; whether onstage, on the big screen, the little screen, modified to fit your screen, or between hard or soft covers.

    If you're like most of my readers (that is, illiterate), you might have missed Potok. But if you went to a preppie college (one with Ivy on the buildings, or one that thinks we can't tell the difference between ivy and kudzu), you might be familiar with the liveliest of college sports: chai alai.

    For those of you who watch "Friends", there's no forgetting Joey Tribiani, who so often is the life of the party and wins women over by saying, "Chai there... chow YOU doing...?" (Remember the hairball. He's not talking about chow mein.)

    Those of you who've tried that line at a bar are used to ending up at the bar alone with your beer, the nectar of life. Perhaps you are sipping away at a pint of the ever redundantly advertised Miller Chai Life.

    But don't feel bad. A few stools down the bar sits someone who's past his (or her) prime. (I hate the awkwardness of putting gender equity in pronouns, but I needed an extra few words to fill space this month.) What happened to that poor sap down the bar? He peaked early, too much believing that the best years of life are the teen years that we spend in chai school.

    For those of you who like old movie musicals, or who like short-lived contemporary stage adaptations of old movie musicals, you've no doubt spent many an hour in a darkened room, losing all circulation in your arm as it rests on the seatback behind your bride, watching one of the liveliest song and dance spectacles, "Chai Society."

    No matter how uncultured you are, unless you're a vampire you can't avoid the brightest, liveliest, most-revered-in-The-Old-West(tm) part of the day: Chai noon. The cultured among you might remember this time of day was the basis of a major motion picture. (Much to my surprise, and perhaps to yours, this is a normal movie with a contiguous story line. It's not a string of 120 or so minute-long episodes that took place at exactly high noon. What a deceptive title. I should complain to someone. In fact, I just did. You.)

    Fans of 80s pop music will always remember Steve Winwood's classic, if slightly redundant anthem for positivism, "Back in the Chai Life."

    If you're a little older, you'll remember that Ringo would "Get Chai With a Little Help From My Friends." Over the years, people have claimed this classic was about drug use. Rubbish. It should be obvious to you now, as it is to me, that the British Fab Four was just talking about a spot of chai. Tea. What a lively way to spend the mid-afternoon.

    And, finally, in these tense times, we must note the great motto of the Israeli special forces that declares to the world their indestructible nature, "Semper Chai."

    Doug Brook is a technical writer in Silicon Valley. His play Retrograde, available in the 8 Tens @ 8 Festival anthology, recently had its professional New York premiere on 42nd Street. For more information, past columns, other writings, and other current events, visit his website at

    Copyright Doug Brook. All rights reserved.