Grumpy Old Man: Enough to make you cry

Israel’s image problem stems not just from its diplomacy, but from its street attitudes.

old man at Wall 521 (photo credit: Daniel Gordis)
old man at Wall 521
(photo credit: Daniel Gordis)
Toward the end of their distinguished careers, Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau starred in a movie called Grumpy Old Men. I never saw the film and have no idea what it was about (old men who were grumpy, I suppose), but some of the characters these two fine actors – especially Matthau – played over the years have time and again led me back to this one title.
It’s more and more how I’ve come to see myself.
Clearly I’m not the only grumpy old man. In fact, there are lots of grumpy old women as well as grumpy young men and young women. I know this because I’m letters editor at The Jerusalem Post, and laudatory missives praising the newspaper, its reporters or opinion writers are relatively rare (which is fine, considering the generally lousy news out there and some of the less-than-entry-level salaries here). But on some days it’s so bad that the irritability, crankiness and petulance seem to radiate out of my computer screen and fill my cubicle with a dense fog of grump.
Can’t people be more pleasant when they complain that left-wingers are traitors? Would it hurt to say that Defense Minister Ehud Barak has an endearing grin before lambasting him for every security ill to befall the country? Would it be wrong to acknowledge when reading about haredi men and their attitudes toward women that someone has to be Jewish around here, or to ask whether it’s absolutely necessary to call Reform Jews “worse than goyim”? Isn’t a little understanding in order before we take the hilltop youth to task for hacking down olive trees and redecorating West Bank mosques? I mean, if your own house were about to be bulldozed for a reason that, to you, carried absolutely no validity, wouldn’t you be doing more than just leafing through the real-estate section in the weekend paper? Of course, the outright nastiness in some letters doesn’t help. There are letter writers who wish evil and even worse on others with whom they disagree. This in itself adds to the grump, although to be honest, in many of these cases I’m more put off by the bad grammar and poor spelling. It’s as if nasty people never studied composition. Don’t they know it’s supposed to be “hanged from the nearest lamppost” and not “hung”? It would be unfair, however, to blame my personal grumpiness on that of others. Generally I’m already grumpy when I walk into the office. In fact, it starts long before I get there – probably the minute I walk out my door.
I have a beautiful and loving family. So what if my wife less-than-gently suggests that I throw my blue jeans in the laundry on more than a quarterly basis, my daughter complains that I ask her and her boyfriend too many questions, and my son thinks I’m anal retentive when it comes to loading the dishwasher. These people wish me no harm (that I know of). But outside, it’s every man for himself.
There’s a new dent in the side of my car, and no note from whoever hit me. A mom stops to pick up her kids outside the elementary school down our narrow block and, despite a backup of cars, thinks nothing of sitting behind the wheel in the middle of the street to hold an ad hoc PTA meeting with moms standing on the sidewalk.
The traffic light at the only outlet to our neighborhood, which has at least 1,000 households, a Kupat Holim, a school, a preschool and several businesses right at the corner where people double- and triple-park and dart in and out of the tiny parking lot, turns green for exactly six seconds, even at rush hour. At a major and well-used crossroads near the exit from town, impatient drivers go through the light on yellow when traffic is so heavy they can’t help but know they’ll end up stuck in the intersection – blocking me, who now has a green. And of course, there’s no parking space once I finally arrive at work.
It’s almost enough to make me cry (and this is just the part about Israeli roads and drivers – don’t get me started on supermarket etiquette, Left-Right shouting wars, teenagers, the secular-religious divide, Beitar Jerusalem fans and Bibi).
ISRAEL HAS an image problem. But it’s not just because of the stupid things it sometimes does in the diplomatic arena and even on the battlefield. A lot of it, I think, has to do with attitudes on the street.
Many admirers abroad describe us as plucky, brash and outspoken, and a lot of us are. How else can we survive in a sea of hatred? But others like to say we’re arrogant, aggressive and rude – and a lot worse. You’d expect to hear this kind of stuff at BDS (boycott, divestment and sanctions) rallies and fancy dinner parties in the presence of haughty French diplomats, but I assure you there’s a good chance that Joe and Gloria in Peoria – who have no quibble with Israel and probably aren’t sure whether it’s situated next to Luxembourg or Upper Volta – will be saying this once they meet their first Israeli.
All too often we absolutely deserve these sobriquets. So, too, does our government for a lot of its own arrogant, aggressive and rude behavior.
So yes, I’m grumpy. It’s gotten to the point where I’m pleasantly surprised when a right-winger in this country understands what lies behind the worldview of a leftwinger (and vice versa), and when an ultra- Orthodox Jew admits his way of life can’t be foisted on people whose Judaism is less rigid or even nonexistent (and vice versa).
I’m even surprised when someone here holds the door for me, allows me to merge into traffic or turns away to sneeze.
Will there come a day in Israel when political and social understanding (never mind good manners) won’t surprise me? I fear it won’t be anytime soon, and maybe not even in my lifetime. And thank goodness for that – otherwise, what would there be for a grumpy old man to write about?