Out There: 'Shalom' in Slovenia

When you take a "sherut" to the airport, the only people talking to strangers are the tourists.

herb keinon (photo credit: )
herb keinon
(photo credit: )
Israel is many things. It's alive, it's vibrant, it's resilient. But it's not a "howdy" country. By that I mean it's not a country where, when you're hiking in the north - say at the Banias - and pass a small group of people going in the opposite direction, they're going to catch your eye, give you a friendly little nod and say "howdy," or the local equivalent. You'll walk with your kids, they'll walk with their kids, and nine times out of 10 there will be no interchange whatsoever. Unless, of course, you need something. If you trip and break your leg, they'll help you. If a Katyusha falls in your path, they'll invite you home. If you're hungry, they'll give you some Bamba. But just a passing "Shalom" when everything is going okay - forget it. Not so in the States. I remember as a lad hiking in the Rocky Mountains with my dad, amusing myself on long treks by figuring out the numerous different ways it was possible to greet fellow hikers on the trail. There was the standard "Hi," the more formal "Hello," the adult "How are you," the cool "Yo" and my personal favorite - the wispy and chirpy, but rather nerdy "Howdy." But none of that flies here, either on the hiking trail, or off. Ever notice that when you take a sherut to the airport, the only people talking to strangers are the tourists? The Israelis say nothing. There are people who live in the apartment building directly next to mine, people I have lived next to for the last 12 years, people whose children I have literally seen grow up before my eyes, who do not acknowledge my existence when we pass each other on the street. This used to bother me, make me feel like a cipher, until one day the wife put it all in perspective. "Stop kvetching," she said, repeating an increasingly popular refrain in our home. "Do you say hello to them?" Of course not. Unless I happen to be in Slovenia. IRONICALLY, it takes leaving this country for a week - going to Slovenia, of all places - to feel the power of connection between Israelis that is often lost here amid the heat, pressure, tension and daily grind. It's odd, really. Our plane to Slovenia was a charter full of Israelis. We didn't talk to our fellow travelers in the ticket line, on the flight over, or waiting for bags at Ljubljana's tiny airport. In fact, we didn't talk to anybody on the flight back either, and - of course - nobody talked to us. But once inside Slovenia, around its fairy-tale castles and mysterious caves, when I passed someone speaking Hebrew, or someone who looked Israeli, a tribal urge to say "Shalom" welled up inside me and, apparently, inside the other guy as well. I've never exchanged greetings with so many unfamiliar Israelis as I did during a week in Slovenia. "Look, an Israeli," I would whisper to my kids when an obviously Israeli-looking family crossed our path. "Where?" they replied. "How can you tell?" AH, I CAN tell. Growing up in the US, I became expert at picking Jews out of a crowd, and since moving here a quarter-century ago, I've now refined that skill and can identify Israelis across a mountain lake. There are two clear signs, I told my kids, happy to provide them with a key life lesson. "First, the headgear. Look around," I said, standing in the central square in Ljubljana, surrounded by churches. "If you see folks wearing baseball caps, both men and women, chances are they will be speaking Hebrew." Granted, not only Israelis wear baseball caps, but there is something unnatural about how they don the cap that just sticks out, something that makes it obvious that the men are wearing it over kippot, and the women in lieu of other types of head coverings. For instance, a baseball cap with a suit and tie is a sure give-away. "Nonsense," one of my boys protests. "Maybe they are religious Jews from New York." "That would be true if we were at the Grand Canyon," I respond. "But religious Jews from New York don't come to Slovenia, of all places." THE SECOND tell-tale sign is family size. Walking around Lake Bohinj in the Julian Alps, I'm able to spot the Israelis by the number of kids in tow. Two kids tagging behind and the family could be European, maybe - stretching the imagination - even Slovenian, a land with one of the lowest fertility rates in the world. Three or more kids, and that family is Israeli. "Abba," my daughter said excitedly at Bohinj, a calm, tranquil place as far away from the intensity of Israel as one could be, "some lady said 'Shalom' to me outside the bathroom." Wow, thought I, contemplating that polite salutation, and how it was not just a post-washroom greeting, but rather a knowing wink-and-nudge in a hostile world; a secret handshake of a huge fraternity; something familiar in a far-flung land. That simple gesture, one so many Israelis share with each other when they are abroad, provides an odd sense of security, a difficult-to-explain feeling of warmth and belonging. The Israeli yearning to connect when abroad through a "Shalom" or brief conversation reinforces what we want to believe about ourselves: that, in the final analysis, we are united and unique; that we do care about each other; that there is security in numbers. "Is that the woman who talked to you?" I asked my daughter, pointing toward a middle-aged woman in a baseball cap? "What did you do?" "Duh, Abba," she responded. "I said Shalom back."