I misplaced my glasses. Whereas those frames and lenses can no more perfect my vision than they clarify: why lice get a shoulder shrug here, why guns are considered “casual attire” at local schools, hospitals, and parties, or why an American accent dooms me to “special pricing," those visual crutches were one of my last throwbacks to “The Old Country.”
In that other place, “The New World,” where boxes go into the trash, not to the gemach; where bread is wrapped, but lettuce is loose; where teachers do not praise my children in order to criticize them; where clerks, whom harangue me, do not, five minutes later, invite me to sit with them for biscuits and tea, I understood human communication. In fact, I taught human communication. I was a rhetoric professor.
In this Old World of Abraham, Issac and Jacob, things are a bit different. Here, the car I finally pass, after playing the acceleration/deceleration game, is occupied by a driver reading a book. Here, after a beggar accepts my money, he sprints into a restaurant that I can not afford to patronize. Here, a titular specialist announces that I have an “important” problem, the very same problem about which I articulated to that doctor twenty minutes and three tests earlier.
The norms in this exceptional domain include: sucking up feelings about the mistreatment of feral cats, saying nothing when boys or grown men relieve themselves against building, and smiling stupidly when yet more chocolate arrives on Purim. To speak "Israeli" is more than to know Hebrew, English, Arabic, Russian or French, is more than the ability to gesture back at other drivers, and is more than fluency with the locally accepted decibel of uttered "amens." Old World communication is about planting our new national flag among windowbox geraniums, about measuring travel by hours rather than by days, about negotiating the price of rubber bands, and about laughing, instead of worrying, when a friend’s rental includes free, electrical shocks in her bathtub.
Living in The Land provides a unique, if not absurd, chance to study human interactions; incommensurate realities have never had it as good. Here, “charif” is both “cunning” and “a spread to accompany chickpeas,” “music” is the soul-rendering prayers of rabbis as well as is the sing-song mockery of insipid children who are gladly busied by tormenting passersby, and “love” is the rationale for the loss of a friend’s arm in Lebanon, along with why we cry at engagement parties, and why I am able to smile at the not-so-old lady, whom elbowed me in the shuk, so she could reach the last dented can of pineapple.
The nuances of communicating “Israeli Style” are effected by: a variety of cultural textures and native languages, the sun, passionate diversity within a single religion, the sun, armed conflicts, the sun, the cost of living, the sun, and the gallantry of bus drivers.
In The Holy Land, people make as much of a point of counting the spring poppies as they do of haggling over agarot.
Studying interplay in The Old World means studying the land, the lore, and The Law. A course in Persuasion, here, concerns not just the latest social psychology, but also insights into music volume and city-relevant protexia. A course in Argument and Debate, here, concerns coffee and the daily news at a neighborhood makolet as much as it does planks and subpoints. A course in Creative Writing, here, concerns ways and means of defying parking tickets as much as it does point-of-view and plot lines.
In this Old World, pronouns and possessives combine into contractions, guests at Britot Milah wear black or orange, but rarely both, and where no journey worth its bus pass requires fewer than two changes of vehicle. Israeli communication is equally a fish flung back and forth over the shores of the Kinneret as it is birds’ confusion over which curb markings allow them to land.
I never did find my glasses. I might have lost them at the Kotel, at my favorite ice cream shop in the pedestrian mall, or on the crowded streets of Me’ah Sha’arim. So, I replaced them as I replaced my expectations about the nature of discourse. Next time you hear me yelling at someone, recognize friendship. If I show up at your door, before Shabbot, with more flowers than I can carry, please understand I love you. If I arrive on time to your simcha, however, I have abandoned social norms.
* An earlier version of this essay was published as “Communication, Israeli-Style,” in “Old/New World Discourse,” The Jerusalem Post, Sept. 20, 2006.