by Mark L. Levinson
Unfortunately for Ehud Barak, he mounted a poster campaign against Bibi Netanyahu just as the media were focusing on a vulnerability of Netanyahu’s that Barak himself notoriously shares — a discomfiting willingness, and a mysterious ability, to enjoy luxuries.
Forbes wrote that as soon as Barak replaced Netanyahu as prime minister at the end of the nineties, Netanyahu became a “consultant to hi-tech companies” and “Those were the years when he asa l’veito and enriched his bank account by millions of shekels.”
And after Barak followed a similar path, journalist Tamar Bar Yosef wrote that Barak’s resplendent apartment, “which news items say has welcomed the grandmasters of Israeli capital, proclaimed that Barak had asa l’veito.”
The expression asa l’veito (עשה לביתו) — literally, “provided for his household” — has a respectable origin in the book of Genesis, where Jacob says to Laban: “the Lord hath blessed thee since my coming: and now when shall I provide for mine own house also?” But as Ruvik Rosenthal notes in his blog, modern Hebrew uses the expression “particularly in connection with public servants who make the move into profitable private business. Sometimes it expresses a certain sarcasm, hinting at the public servant who sees to his own economic interests in an improper fashion.”
I found the expression in only a few Hebrew-to-English dictionaries. Alcalay says “to care for one’s own family, look after one’s own interests.” Galil says “look after one’s family.” On line, the Morfix, Babylon, and Seadict dictionaries all concur with those definitions. Among the definitions at Snopi, an online Hebrew-to-Hebrew dictionary, is the more sharply worded “acted in his own interest exclusively.”
Although Jacob in Genesis was not being greedy in the slightest, a mere 4000 years later it is considered laudable not to be someone who asa l’veito. “There once was a government minister who did not asa l’veito,” says a headline in praise of Zalman Aran. Similarly, Haaretz eulogizes journalist Shimshon Ehrlich with the headline “He never asa l’veito.”
Could it be the collectivist roots of Israeli society that are responsible for disparaging the idea of providing for oneself and one’s family? I don’t find that Google supports the theory. When I looked for instances that were not tinged with negativity, what I came up with was largely from kibbutzim. Rosa Abend of Kibbutz Beeri is memorialized as someone who “with the industriousness and dedication that typified her throughout her life, attended to her household and family”: asta l’veita ul’mishpakhta.” A different kibbutz, Yagur, remembers Ilana Patishi as someone who asta l’veita, l’chol yeled, lakhinuch, lamishpakha (עשתה לביתה, לכל ילד, לחינוך, למשפחה) — seeing to the interests of the household, all the children, education, and family. Giora Neeman, whose memoir of Kibbutz Beit Hashita (Saving Cyclops) I translated and hope some day to see on sale in English, writes on the back cover that after he left Israel in the recession of the 1960s, he asa l’veito in New York.
If my impression is correct and the phrase asa l’veito retained its respectable meaning longer on the kibbutzim than elsewhere, I can’t confidently guess what the reason is. But the meaning in the kibbutz eulogies seems to be more than economic, more than just bringing home the bacon, as indeed it would have to be in a traditional kibbutz environment of communal living.
One thing I can state confidently is that when asa l’veito refers to exploiting your position as a public servant in order to enrich yourself and your family, in English we can call it feathering your nest. The American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms says that to feather one’s nest means to “Acquire wealth for oneself, especially by taking advantage of one's position or using the property of others. For example, Bill's many profitable consulting assignments enabled him to feather his nest quite comfortably. This expression alludes to birds making a soft nest for their eggs.” The dictionary says it dates from the mid-1500s.
Is there another good translation of the phrase? You’re invited to comment on asa l’veito in the space below. Or if there’s another word you recommend discussing, please write me at email@example.com. I’m always glad to receive suggestions. An index of previously discussed words is here.