Living with Israel
I am shy. But I live in America, so I’m allowed to be. Israelis don’t have that luxury.
Jamie Geller, family making aliya Photo: Sasson Tiram
I am shy. But I live in America, so I’m allowed to be. Israelis don’t have that
This epiphany can be traced to several sources. I grew up in
Manhattan and interacted with Israeli New Yorkers. I watched the way Israelis
talked during two trips to Israel in my early twenties. And life circumstances
during the last few years have drawn me to Israeli culture.
Yorker Roy Schwartz, a writer, personal fitness trainer and good friend, is
largely responsible for my recent engagement with Israel. Two years ago, trying
to get in shape, I connected with Roy. He seemed like a typical Israeli man:
intense, tough and quite intelligent. He was blunt about my need to change my
eating habits if I wanted to lose weight, and unyielding in his tough-love
encouragement. The idea that confident and direct Roy could be shy did not cross
But during our weekly physical training sessions, I began to
notice that, between barking out orders that I do one more squat or leg press,
Roy often talked about conversations he’d had. As a shy person, I spend a lot of
time (more than I should) analyzing interactions I’ve had with people.
identify this practice as one that unites shy people. (Talking to people doesn’t
come as naturally to us as it does to extroverts, so we must work hard to figure
out the rules of the game of conversation).
I mentioned one day that I’d
been a painfully shy child. Roy had a funny reaction.
He said, “I don’t
think Israeli kids are allowed to be shy.” I think he’s
There are several reasons why Israeli kids are not allowed to be
shy. One reason is obvious: they live in a warzone.
parents train their kids to be tough, and tough people aren’t shy. Roy’s
grandma, who raised him, told him to “speak softly and loudly” (speak with quiet
confidence). Israeli kids are inundated with the famous Hillel the Elder saying:
“If I am not for myself, who will be for me? And if not now, when?” Israeli kids
learn that they must stand up for themselves. Shyness is not
And the American “virtue” of modesty is not as emphasized in
Israel. Confidence is often conflated with arrogance in the United States. In
Israel, humility is expected, but false modesty is not celebrated. Israelis are
allowed to recognize both their strengths and their shortcomings.
lessons of Israeli parents are reinforced by the IDF. The IDF Special Forces
slogan is “Who Dares, Wins.” After protecting people in battle, soldiers
approach crises at work or in social contexts with greater confidence and poise.
Three-plus years in the IDF make Israelis acutely aware of their capabilities
and limitations. Not knowing them is a luxury soldiers can ill-afford.
a soldier doesn’t know his mettle, someone will test it.
And there’s also
a historical component.
Israel is a country of immigrants. Between 1919
and 1923, more than 40,000 Jews arrived in Israel (then the British Mandate of
Palestine). This period is known as the Third Aliya (wave of
Whether because of persecution (such as escaping
post-revolutionary chaos in Russia, during a period when more than 100,000
Russian Jews were killed), or Zionism, or plain old wanderlust, many of the
people who moved from Russia and Eastern Europe to Israel during the 1920s did
so because they wanted to escape. And they did not merely want to escape, they
actually did escape! Dreaming about escaping persecution in Russia is one thing;
actually escaping is a bold move. Surely many wanted to leave difficult
circumstances in Russia behind but, out of fear or even lethargy, lived out
their lives in Russia. The ones who moved to Israel, the halutzim, were the
Those who escaped to Israel during or after World War II, of
course, were more than renegades. They were survivors. Surviving a concentration
camp (or, if luckier, narrowly avoiding a concentration camp) makes boldness
less of an adaptation, and shyness more than a luxury.
survivors, shyness is downright irrelevant.
My mettle was never tested in
a concentration camp. I didn’t serve in the IDF. My mom did push me to engage
socially (I may not be Israeli, but I am Jewish, so I still have an overbearing
mom!), but because she thought having social skills would make life easier for
me, not because she was afraid I’d be a mark for a terrorist if I didn’t display
enough confidence. I’ve spent most of my life in Manhattan, where I live now;
the most moxie I showed was moving to California for a few years for law
But I have an “Israeli streak” in me.
Even though I’m shy,
I’m a lawyer, and I love arguing. I’m opinionated, I’m not frivolous, and I’m an
open book about my life. I don’t play games or feign passivity to attract men.
My personality is larger than life. I often overwhelm American men, but Israeli
men usually respond well to me.
The American ethos is “we’ve
arrived.” The Israeli mentality is “we’re building something” or “we’re
all part of a grand social experiment (i.e., Zionism).” Shyness isn’t
appreciated in Israel because everyone is expected to be part of the
Hanging out with Israelis – not just the men, but also the women –
and learning to appreciate their culture, is helping me to be a less shy, less
self-absorbed, and more confident person. I admire Israelis – not only their
bravery, but also their loyalty, and (most fundamentally) their survival
The writer is a Jewish attorney living in New York.