Real Israel: Who are we?

Being Israeli is an experience.

April 16, 2010 16:22
4 minute read.
Celebrating Pessah, Israeli-style, in Jerusalem’s

mangal in the park 311. (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)


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There used to be a popular column in Ma’ariv’s magazine called “Who’s an Israeli?” which every week allowed someone else the opportunity to describe the average man on the street. The column itself was wonderfully Israeli: What can be more typical than putting ourselves down in a (then) mass circulation newspaper but accusing anyone who says anything nasty about us abroad of anti-Semitism?

The column came back to mind recently ahead of Yom Ha’atzmaut when I asked friends, colleagues and some strangers what was their most quintessential Israeli experience (and perhaps talking to strangers counts).More than one immigrant mentioned that it was typically Israeli to be referred to as “Amerika’i,” decades after making aliya. Not surprisingly, this most annoyed those born and raised in Canada, Australia and Britain.

For many, their most Israeli experience was (sadly) war-based: Being hospitalized during the Gulf War with its sealed rooms and gas masks provided an only-in-Israel moment to a colleague who gave birth and another who had a miscarriage.

Opening up their Jerusalem home to “refugees” seeking respite from the Katyushas in the Second Lebanon War was an utterly Israeli response for one family. So was staying at home amid missiles in the South for another.

Waiting in line to give blood after a major terror attack was the private epiphany of one passerby: “I think it was the only orderly queue I had ever seen in the country.”

While Israel’s secret service is believed capable of almost anything, Israelis cannot keep a secret, as we all know. We might have a policy of nuclear ambiguity, but just about everything else is out in the open. Sitting on a bus and listening to someone on her cellphone complain about her husband, mortgage and hemorrhoids can be a newcomer’s “I guess I’m not in Kansas anymore” moment.

Among the most Israeli experiences are traveling abroad to get away from it all and then being happy to meet other Israelis doing the same thing in the same place.

Religion featured in many “only here” recollections. A stridently secular sabra friend noted that as Pessah ended her family found it hard to go to sleep because of the sound of Bratslav hassidic songs blasting outside her Jerusalem apartment. When her partner went down close to midnight to ask for some quiet he discovered the source of the noise was “the neighbors, the landlord’s family, from the kids to the grandmother all singing and dancing and celebrating Mimouna.”

An Orthodox friend recalls sitting at the back of an Egged bus and realizing that the graffiti scribbled on the seat in front was the lyrics of the song “Anahnu Ma’aminim Bnei Ma’aminim” expressing faith in God.

One of my only-in-Israel moments was watching the main road being closed off to allow for the joyous procession accompanying a Torah scroll being dedicated in a local synagogue with more fanfare than the average groom on the way to his wedding.

And I distinctly remember a “this couldn’t happen anywhere else” feeling when I noticed a sign on a fence pre-Pessah a few years back requesting: “Please don’t burn your hametz here.” And indeed there was no need. Informal groups gather every year in the same spot in the local park to get rid of their leavened products in style, not far from the sign saying “Do not light fires” and “Dogs must be kept on a leash.”

For a country that has compulsory military service, we do not like taking orders. But army service, and miluim (reserve duty), are definitely Israeli.

“Being in Israel is having your children grow up calling their teachers and their officers by their first names,” said one friend.

Several noted the over-familiarity which can be either choking or charming depending on your mood and disposition. Nearly every new mother can recall a stranger stopping to tell her that the baby should have a hat, socks or pacifier – whatever object it was that the baby had been repeatedly throwing down. “And nobody would come up to a pregnant woman in New York and just start stroking her belly,” noted one woman.

On the other hand, nobody in New York would let their kids play in the park out of sight, either.

“Israel is Hebrew Book Week,” determined one neighbor who, like many, waits all year for the discounts at the cross-country, open-air book fair.

Israel is having a taxi driver who is never lost for a political opinion. (Or will ever admit losing his way.)

It’s being able to quote Hagashash Hahiver sketches. And it’s words like the untranslatable “davka.”

“The most Israeli thing is to hear a sad song on the radio and know that it’s either some kind of memorial day or something terrible has happened, like a terror attack or soldiers being killed,” said one acquaintance.

Being Israeli is standing to attention for the Remembrance Day siren – and really remembering someone.

And being Israeli is having the day off to celebrate Yom Ha’atzmaut with a barbecue, alternatively known as a “mangal,” but never called by its Hebrew name, matzleh.

The quintessential Israeli experience, it seems, is just doing what comes naturally: eating, remembering, celebrating and being davka.

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