Out There: Yelling at your future surgeon

There's an important lesson here: It pays, in this small country, to be careful who you fight with.

herb keinon (photo credit: )
herb keinon
(photo credit: )
In the car the other day with my teen-aged daughter, I spotted a parking space near our local mall, dutifully put on my blinker, and started to back up. No sooner did I shift into reverse than another car scooted into the spot. I was thunderstruck. But rather than drive away angry, which would have been the mature thing to do, I backed up, rolled down the window, lowered my voice, affected a tough native accent, twisted my forefinger to my temple, and shouted at the driver: "What's the matter with you?" "Why are you so angry?" she replied, unnervingly calm. "Why am I so angry," I muttered under my breath, "because you stole my parking spot, you donkey." I wanted to curse, to holler, to rage, to carry on, but - seeing my daughter slinking down in her seat - I decided to drive away. Good move, that. The offending driver, my daughter informed me, lives in our neighborhood. No, even better, she's a teacher at my girl's high school; though, thankfully, not the teacher of her class. "I hope she didn't recognize me," my red-faced offspring said. "Whoops," I replied. A SIMILAR "whoops" moment occurred more than a dozen years ago, when I was relatively new to the country. A co-worker of mine, an immigrant like myself, was buying a home and needed a loan guarantor for a mortgage. He didn't have family in the country, nor many good friends yet, so he asked me to sign. Having read a number of articles about how people had lost their life savings by signing as loan guarantors for people they didn't know well, I turned him down. About a year later that individual became my boss. To his infinite credit, he never held it against me. But I was lucky: He was a decent fellow. Things could have turned out much worse. There's an important lesson here: It pays, in this small country, to be careful who you yell at, to be wary of whom you dis. Indeed, you even have to think twice about who you honk at. I live in a close-knit community made up of nice people living on narrow streets. But even nice people can be rude and selfish drivers, especially when living on narrow streets. The urge to honk at them, yell and make unfriendly hand gestures inevitably wells up inside. The near weekly challenge is to overcome that urge - not out of any Mother-Theresa goodness, but rather from the realization that the guy I curse today could be my kid's father-in-law tomorrow. AND THAT is the uniquely Israeli paradox. On the one hand this is a small country, and you really might be haranguing the person who later turns out to be your surgeon. Yet, on the other hand, this is also a country that invites yelling, that encourages the "blow-up." Maybe it's the sense of familiarity, a dearth of personal space, the lack of formality, that proverbial hot-blooded Mediterranean temperament - whatever it is, there is something here that gives people license to yell and speak sharply with strangers in a way they would not dare do elsewhere. I know this by watching the behavior of relatives on visits. One close relative, a good and decent man, would think twice before reproving complete strangers in the States. But here it's different. Here every perceived offense is fodder for a tongue-lashing, every wrong something that needs to be addressed. Here he feels oddly at ease rebuking someone for bringing 11 items to the 10-item supermarket express line, or complaining to the cashier if she is going too slowly. WHY? The starry-eyed idealists, or those fresh off the boat, will say it's because we're all family. They'll say we feel at ease with one another and - as a result - feel comfortable enough to speak gruffly to the "family" in ways we don't speak to others. Hogwash. Sometimes people speak more gently to family members than they do to normal people, but you don't see much of that out on the streets. Others say it has to do with the pressures of life here; that with all the existential fears and the concern for security and safety and children in the army, people are always simmering and just need one small thing - one guy trying to butt into line at the bank - to send them over the boiling point. Nonsense. What do Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's threats to blow us up have to do with my admonishing some guy for speaking too loudly on his cell phone? This country's security concerns are very, very real; but not everything can be attributed to them. No, it's something different. My relative speaks bad-temperedly with folks here because he thinks it is both accepted and expected in Israel. It's a self-fulfilling cycle. He sees people raising their voices and gesticulating wildly at each other in the supermarket, and concludes that it is normative Israeli behavior. But because he doesn't understand Israel's unique cultural communication cues, he doesn't understand that these people are not really fighting - it just seems that way. WHICH IS what I explained to my daughter when she asked why I yelled at the woman who stole my parking space. I wasn't really yelling, I replied, it just seemed that way. "And if I screamed at you like that, what would you do," she asked. "Simple," I replied. "I'd ground you in a second."