Out There: Israel, laid back

There is still one major plane that sharply differentiates between life here and in the Diaspora: the trajectory of our youth.

IDF lone soldiers 521 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
IDF lone soldiers 521
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Israel’s growing affluence and the telecommunications revolution of the past two decades have slowly eroded many of the differences in daily life that once existed between Israel and the West.
Unlike some 30 years ago, when I made aliya, now one can live in Israel and still eat the foods, buy the products, watch the television programs, enjoy the sports, and get the news from the ‘old country’ on a regular basis.
Most of us now have cars and phones and computers, and can bank at ATMs.
We don’t have to stand in line at the post office any more to pay the television tax, our kids can make noise outside between the hours of two and four in the afternoon, and grocery stores are open throughout the day.
Just like a real country.
There is, however, still one major plane that sharply differentiates between life here and there: the trajectory of our youth.
Having just returned from a few weeks in the US, I was struck by the pressure placed on the average 11th-grade American Jewish kid – the pressure to excel at school, do well on the SATs, and get into an elite college is enormous.
Sixteen- and 17-year-old kids are filling up their hours with unwanted extracurricular activities – thespian clubs, bowling clubs, science clubs, yearbooks, volunteering at local hospitals – so they have what to put on their college applications. The college application procedure is all many of these kids (and their parents) think and dream about. The strategizing is endless.
Here, of course, the army changes all that. If 16- and 17-year-old kids in the States live and breathe getting into college, here they eat, think and talk about the army. That’s an obvious – and huge – difference, and a function of our unique neighborhood.
What is less obvious is the degree to which things here are more relaxed, even after the army. One might think that the army just defers the stress over college for three years, and that once the army is over, the preoccupation with college and career will be as great as it is in the US.
But that’s not the case. The army puts a healthier, more pragmatic and practical perspective on college: what it means, what it's for, what happens if you don’t get into the school of your choice. Things are just more laid back.
Sure, the psychometric test looms large, and – with two of my own kids about to put their lives on hold in the fall to take the three-month psychometric preparatory course – I understand it. But the pressure is dramatically different here than what faces US high schoolers.
We don’t have the same built-in societal and parental pressures and expectations to quickly go to college, move out of the house, get a job and support oneself.
I left for college a few months shy of my eighteenth birthday, and never really returned to my parents’ home for more than a summer vacation. And it wasn’t because my parents didn’t love me dearly; it’s just because that was the American way: 18 and out.
Here, forget about it.
Israeli society, to its credit, gives its youth time. There is not the same rush to achieve and succeed that exists in the US. A lot of that is simply because one doesn’t begin college until at least 21, after the army, and by that time there is a realization that it doesn’t really matter if you start a career at 25 or at 27. So go travel for a year. Is anyone out there really kicking themselves for not having started their lifelong job a year earlier? Thanks to the army, The Lad, my oldest child, is already well past college age in the States, and still a year away from enrolling in college here. He now talks – only half jokingly – about living with us until he is married.
It’s a different head; it’s what’s done; it’s a societal norm. It’s not that he loves being with us that much, it’s just that he doesn’t dislike it enough to want to pay rent. And The Wife and I don’t really mind. I’m especially pleased with it.
Life’s pleasures, as we re-discovered the other day, are indeed found – as all those greeting cards say – in the simplest joys: a Bruce Springsteen song, a cool breeze after a sharav, having all the kids together around the Shabbat table.
THAT LAST pleasure is one we experienced last week for the first time in seven months: having everyone home for Shabbat. The Lad was back from chasing natural disasters in Australia and New Zealand, The Lass had an “off” Shabbat from her national service stint in exotic Afula, and the two younger boys were home from school.
On CNN that morning, I saw a story about a woman looking for her grandmother in Joplin, Missouri after the deadly tornado there (she found her). The woman said it was incredible how one could wake up in the morning and find that everything was gone, simply gone. Just like that. Poof. The fragility of life, and all that.
Cliché riddled as it was, that clip touched a chord with me, and I mentioned it around the table with the kids, as well as how nice it was for all of us to be sitting there together for the first time in months.
“Ok, Abba,” said my daughter (due to move back home next month after finishing her second year in a youth village up north looking after kids from problematic homes). “Take it easy.Don’t go all nuts-o on us.”
“Right,” I said, duly chastised for over-sentimentality. “I won’t go nuts. And I’m also not going to kick you out when you come back home. I actually like this.”