An iconic country

A recent Facebook survey offers a refreshing way to look at Israeli symbols.

matkot on the beach_521 (photo credit: David Shankbone/Wikimedia Commons)
matkot on the beach_521
(photo credit: David Shankbone/Wikimedia Commons)
America has baseball, Britain has football, and all sorts of places with lots of patience and time have cricket. Israel has… matkot. The beach bums’ version of tennis was recently voted one of the country’s top 10 iconic objects in an online Facebook survey sponsored by the soft drink company Sprite, as part of a campaign running under the slogan “Sprite’s refreshing revolution.”
“Matkot is the most Israeli of games,” says Eldad Ziv, almost a cultural icon in his own right and a member of the panel that oversaw the project. “After all, it’s a game which doesn’t have any rules or purpose, and neither winners nor losers. It’s one of those Israeli icons that hasn’t disappeared even in the most cynical of eras. It encapsulates the Israeli spirit – which doesn’t shine at obeying orders: In fact, opponents prefer to challenge each other exactly under the sign which states that the game is not allowed. On the other hand, it is a game played by friends and based on cooperation.”
The sound of the ball thwacking a wooden paddle is, indeed, almost as much a part of the beach experience as the sound of the waves, but matkot is not the only aspect of Israeli seaside culture found in the top 10 list of icons, which also includes seashore popsicle vendors and the lifeguard’s tower, made legendary by many Israeli movies.
The list, like the country, is eclectic: From a choice of 25 Israeli symbols, the final online vote went to what is known as gufiat saba, literally a “grandfather’s undershirt,” used to describe the sleeveless and utterly informal white garment worn by men of any age and now being turned into a female fashion item; the Hai pendant, which is frequently seen dangling between the gufiat saba and thick chest hairs on Israeli guys; felafel, the national dish; mangal (Israel’s version of a barbecue), that special headdress, the kova tembel; popsicles (artikim), not just those sold on the beach, which were considered to be in a class by themselves; and the huge garbage containers known, because of their shape and color, as frog bins (pahei tsfardeya).
“I was thrilled to be part of this project,” Ziv tells me in a phone call sandwiched between his projects on television. “The icon is a source of national pride and provides an identity and sense of belonging. In these times when the iPhone, iPad, Facebook and Like are an inseparable part of our lives, it’s nice to remember the icons and symbols that were once the foundations of our culture.
“Israeli icons first and foremost tell the story of the existential cultural community: a community isolated geographically and geopolitically, relatively poor, which, through improvisation and inventiveness, created products that were uniquely its own.
“Just like Jewish food that was slowly cooked in the pots of Jewish grandmothers – regardless of ethnic origins – was based on leftovers, more than a few icons were created as a result of paucity of ingredients,” says Ziv. Biblical-style “Jesus sandals,” which didn’t make it to the shortlist, for example, were developed out of the need for light footwear in the Middle Eastern heat but without using too much expensive leather, he says. Similarly, he notes that the kova tembel – or what he calls “the sort of local version of a sailor’s cap” – was created out of scraps of cloth: “It’s the symbol of simplicity.”
When I point out that one of the common denominators of the chosen icons is that they express our familiarity and an expression of the collective, Ziv agrees and adds: “That’s the difference between the American barbecue and the Israeli mangal, for instance. The barbecue is held in a backyard, far from prying eyes, while the Israeli mangal is out in the open, surrounded by other families doing the same thing.”
Ziv is a playwright, director, artist, musician and media personality whose work ranges from the highly recommended Laisse moi t’aimer – a play about singer Mike Brant, whom Ziv calls “Israel’s Jim Morrison” – to televised arts programs guided by the slogan “In art, as in art: There’s no such thing as no such thing.”
He considers even the Hebrew language, which he loves, a cultural icon in its own right: “So few people speak it. It’s one of the things that sets us apart and distinguishes us as Israelis.”
Not all Ziv’s own suggested icons made it to the shortlist: “For example, the Sussita car,” he enthuses of the cheap fiberglass Sabra vehicles, popular in the ’60s and ’70s. “What other car looks like an upside-down refrigerator? It’s ours and ours alone.”
None of the three things I would place at the top of my list of Israeli icons made it to even the original list, let alone the top 10, but I’ll share them anyway: hultzot sof maslul, the ubiquitous, slogan-bearing Tshirts marking various stages of military service; Hebrew Book Week, because no other country has anything like it, in any language; and the quiet of a traffic-less Yom Kippur – a religious icon, if you will.
Although it’s too late to vote in the project, the ongoing campaign is now calling on the public to apply special applications to the chosen icons on Sprite’s Facebook page.
“We mustn’t lose our historical symbols,” says Ziv. “These icons are who we are. And that’s why we need to refresh them – in the words of the Sprite campaign – to make sure they remain in the public consciousness; all those things that when we come across them we say: ‘That’s so Israeli.’”