In My Own Write: Back to basics

US anthropologist Edward T. Hall coined the term proxemics in his study of how human culture influences our use of space.

311_sukka sales (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
311_sukka sales
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Usher a group of unsuspecting dinner guests into a rickety structure just a few meters square, expecting them to pass the evening sitting shoulder to shoulder around a table that takes up most of the available room, and they very likely wouldn’t be happy campers.
They’d probably be dealing with issues like invasion of private space, a sense of being located too close for comfort to their neighbors, the impossibility of making a polite exit, perhaps even feelings of claustrophobia.
Yet this week, all over the Jewish world, groups of people all shapes, sizes and temperaments, some of whom already know each other, some of whom don’t, have been piling quite happily into flimsy dwellings not much bigger – and in some cases much smaller – than a garden shed.
To the children – and the child that lives inside us – it’s a delightful change from the way we live year round, enclosed within four permanent walls.
Our adult selves, exposed to the elements while in the succa, are reminded that our continuing existence here on earth, on safe and solid ground, is not something to be taken for granted.
In Israel, it rained on the first night of Succot, accompanied by bolts of thunder and jags of lightning.
Inside our dwellings at any other time of year, we would have heard it; on Sunday night, we felt it.
HOW MUCH space do we humans actually need for comfort? It’s an intriguing question, seeing that we start off as fetuses snug and content inside the narrow confines of mom’s uterus.
Once out in the world, however, our accumulation of “stuff” deemed vital to happiness – consider just the toys and other paraphernalia surrounding the average Western infant – picks up speed, demanding larger and larger spaces to store all these things and, indeed, show them off.
“I own, therefore I am” is the modern mantra, with its inevitable corollary of “I own, and thereby am driven to own even more.” The drive for material possessions is never really satisfied.
And perhaps that is one of the realities addressed by the week of Succot, in which Jews live – even sleep, as many do – inside the most basic of temporary dwellings, doing without all the accoutrements they are accustomed to.
In demonstrating that we can manage quite well without all our usual stuff around us, we invite a personal consideration of just what our essential selves are and, by extension, what is really important in our lives.
As such, the sojourn in the succa seems a fitting winding-up (or winding down) of the High Holy Day period, in which reflection and self-examination play such a major part.
THAT SAID, it is surely not an indictment of our human nature to long for a living area in which we can freely move about and stretch our physical selves.
And, indeed, concepts of what is considered essential living space have changed drastically over the four decades I’ve been in Israel.
Where, once, overnight guests would naturally and unquestioningly have been accommodated on mattresses laid down on the floor, today’s apartment buyer wants a “guest room,” even if it has to double as a study or computer room.
And while indoor, private toilets were once viewed as a luxury, many modern Israelis now wonder how anyone can manage with just a single bathroom.
Twenty or 30 years ago, a couple would have raised three or four children uncomplainingly in the threeroom apartment my husband and I now occupy. Yet we feel the space is too cramped for just the two of us plus our electronic gadgetry.
ONE OF my dreams is to have a large, airy bedroom like those you see in furniture ads, something that’s intended for more than just sleeping. It’s a place in which I can walk around, sink into a cozy armchair, maybe sit at a small table – you get the idea.
My current Israeli reality is an area of roughly three square meters in which our (small) double bed has been pushed into a corner in order to allow movement on what little remains of the floor. Two Twiggys might get dressed there simultaneously; for any two others, it’s a challenge.
As for the aforementioned bed, there’s really only one way to make it, and that is to launch yourself across the mattress and lie there like a beached whale, arms and legs extended, while you attempt to tuck in the sheet on the far side. It takes energy and I know looks quite ridiculous.
Is it over-materialistic to aspire to a sleeping chamber where I can walk around the bed and still have space to spare; where my husband can slide effortlessly into bed each night instead of having to clamber up from the bottom?
THE AMERICAN anthropologist Edward T. Hall (1914- 2009) coined the term proxemics in his study of how human culture influences our use of space.
In his most famous innovation, described in The Hidden Dimension, he defined the personal spaces that surround individuals: intimate space, into which only one’s closest friends and intimates can enter; social and consultative space, in which people feel comfortable conducting routine social interactions; and public space, the area in which interactions are perceived as impersonal and relatively anonymous.
Cultural expectations about these spaces and people’s consequent behavior regarding them can vary widely – as many Western immigrants to Israel have found to their amusement or, more often, dismay.
“What I hate most is waiting in a queue with people who have no concept of private space,” a European friend on an extended stay in this country told me. “I can often smell them, and even feel their breath on the back of my neck.”
Yet things have improved, albeit slowly. Over the last several years, banks, post offices, health centers and other public institutions have introduced the numbers system. This move is changing the local culture by enforcing a reasonable seated distance from the service counters, and a polite if resigned wait for one’s turn in place of what used to be a daunting and pushy freefor- all in which the squeakiest wheels received the oil.
In some places, putting up rope channels to keep people in line, with added signs at the front saying “Ad kan (Do not go beyond this point)” have also helped to keep strangers well out of one’s consultative space – though you still encounter those annoying individuals who’ll push ahead because they “just want to ask a question.”
AS FOR invasions of personal space, as someone who made aliya from Britain where, famously, both the individual who accidentally steps on someone’s foot and the owner of the foot still apologize profusely to each other, it’s upsetting when Israelis knock into you or push past without so much as a backward glance.
Is this the expression of a different cultural attitude to personal space, or just rudeness? It hardly seems to matter. Parents and educators must know that inculcating kindness and consideration begins in the home and classroom, and that selfish children will grow into selfish adults.
WHAT DOES it mean to give your “significant other” space? Clearly, it doesn’t mean just physical space – though that can be important – but room to express his or her personality, even when it differs markedly from your own.
It can be a real challenge, but there’s really no other way to solidify and ultimately enrich a partnership.
I am often impulsive about making decisions, even important ones, while my husband needs time to sort out his thoughts and the course of action he wants to take. It can be agonizing to stay put and do nothing while his mental cogs slowly turn. Yet how else to live life as a team? In contrast, he has demonstrated a strong predilection for washing dishes – and in this area, I am quite content to leave the kitchen and give him all the space he needs.