Out There: Native brilliance

Admitting that not everything we brought over from America is great, brilliant and logical is a humbling experience.

October 8, 2006 03:29
4 minute read.
window bars 88

window bars 88. (photo credit: )


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Burdened with a we-know-it-better arrogance that afflicts the occasional new immigrant, the wife and I were determined - some 20 years ago - to do things the right way when we built our first succa together in Israel. And doing it the right way meant, of course, hanging real fruit - not the made-in-China plastic sort - in the succa. This is how I did it back home in Denver, and the way we would do it here. Even though we knew that none of our neighbors partook of this particular custom, we remained dead set on transplanting this American Jewish tradition to the Holy Land. If Israelis didn't hang juicy apples, succulent oranges and shapely pears in their succot to make them pretty, it was just because - well - they were stupid. Ah, how quickly we learned. In Denver and Chicago, where we were reared, you could hang fruit outside in October, because at that time of year it was pretty much akin to putting the fruit in a cooler. But not in Eretz Yisrael. Here you keep an apple outside for a couple of days in 30-degree heat, and the apple rots. Hanging fruit here doesn't enhance the joy of sitting in succa, it detracts from it. The apple gets mushy, the bees and fruit flies arrive, and the temporary booth becomes uninhabitable. Had we opened our eyes that first succot holiday, we would have learned an important lesson: not everything Israelis do that seems crazy at first blush is - in fact - dumb. It has taken nearly a quarter of a century, but I have come to appreciate that many of the Israeli customs and ways I deemed ridiculous when I first arrived were actually downright brilliant. Like being able to ask your neighbors how much they make; or how much they sold their apartment for; or how much it would cost to buy their car. Sure, at first it may seem a tad impolite asking people these questions, but let's face it, the question is the mother of the answer, and if you don't ask, you won't know. Besides, who will deny the intrinsic value of this information? Or how about screens on windows, or the lack thereof. I grew up in an area where there were mosquitoes and flies in the summer. No matter, someone real clever figured out that one could keep the great outdoors out the door by just installing screens. Sensible, no? But then I came here, and rented apartments for years that always came without any screens. When I asked various landlords why this was, why a country that could develop long-range antiballistic missiles couldn't come up with screens, I was told that screens block the airflow. "That's nuts," thought I. When I grew up we had screens, no mosquitoes and airflow. But I was wrong. Screens do block the airflow. I now live in an apartment where the air does not flow freely, where I don't have good kivunim (exposures, another Israeli obsession I have lately come to appreciate), and where in order to feel any breeze at all I have to open the screens. The natives, it turns out, were right. AND THEY were also right about their penchant for keeping their windows open in the winter. In another month or two, winter will be upon us. Nevertheless, half the apartments in Jerusalem will have their windows wide open all day, letting in bone-chillingly cold air. "What you want to do," I patronizingly suggested to a neighbor many years ago, "is keep the windows open in the summer, but closed in the winter. See, that way you keep the cold air out. That's how we did it in America." "This isn't America," came the hated reply. "If you don't keep the windows open, you get mold on the ceiling." He was right. Now we keep the windows open all year round. Granted, we freeze from December to March, but our ceilings are mold-free. Overdraft. That, too, was an idea that ran contrary to my upbringing. I grew up with an idea pounded into me that you live within your means. If you don't have, you don't buy. If you want to buy something, but don't have the money, either save or sell some more lemonade. The idea of living on money you don't have seemed - at first - almost criminal. Until I realized that if I stuck to that philosophy, I'd buy nothing and still not make it through the month. This list of Israeli customs that turned out wise is long and spans a variety of spheres. For example, French fries in pita (the culinary sphere); finishing Shabbat services at 10 am and downing a bowl of breakfast cholent at 10:15 (the religious sphere); sponga on the floor, rather than a mop (the domestic cleaning sphere); and having non-Israeli players on Maccabi Tel Aviv's basketball team, because otherwise they would never win a game (the sports sphere). Admitting that not everything we brought over from America is great, brilliant, and logical is a humbling experience. It takes a big person to admit the merits of bagged - over cartoned - milk. But this type of admission is a necessary precondition to proper acculturation. And if anybody disagrees with that proposition, just cluck the tongue and shout them down - interpersonal traits that I detested at first, but which I have since internalized and found to be, if not exactly charming, at least quite useful.

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