This Normal Life: Smoking at an Israeli wedding

The author asks, ‘Is smoking and dancing a thing?’

A woman smokes a cigarette while dancing at the Shuka bar in Jerusalem. (photo credit: LAURA KELLY)
A woman smokes a cigarette while dancing at the Shuka bar in Jerusalem.
(photo credit: LAURA KELLY)
Is this a thing: Smoking on the dance floor at a wedding? My wife and I attended the nuptials of a friend’s son a few weeks ago.
It was a lavish affair, with an endless appetizer bar and a DJ crew that could compete with the best Tel Aviv clubs. But as the hundreds of young people grooved to a beat that was just a bit more melodically challenged than my hip but middle-aged sensitivities could relate to, I was overwhelmed by the cigarettes.
It wasn’t everyone, but it was a lot. At times, it seemed every third dancer was waving around a lit stick of tobacco.
Maybe I just don’t hang out in the cool parts of town, but I thought smoking was declining in Israel. Certainly in my circles, there’s almost no smoking at all. My friends by and large don’t smoke, there’s no smoking in offices or on buses anymore, even malls have gotten cleaned up in recent years.
The most recent statistics show smoking is definitely going down. A Health Ministry study from 2012 found that 17.7 percent of adult Israelis smoke, compared with 20.6% the year before – a 14% drop.
(Another study puts the figure slightly higher, but the number of smokers is still heading south.) This is due in part to higher taxes, stricter enforcement and a smaller number of places where smoking is allowed.
It is now illegal to smoke in all commercial entities in Israel; this includes bathrooms, office buildings, gyms, cafés, restaurants, discos, pubs and bars. Owners of public places must display “No smoking” signs and prevent visitors from smoking.
I didn’t see any “No smoking” signs at all at the Kedma Event Hall in Neveh Ilan where the wedding was held, and had an inspector popped in (the fine for owners of public places is NIS 5,000, and for the smokers themselves it’s NIS 1,000), he would no doubt have been met by a near-riot in trying to enforce the law.
It got so bad at one point that I had to step out of the hall entirely where, given the frigid temperatures that night, no smokers dared to tread, rendering the air clear from tobacco residue.
When I first got to Israel 21 years ago, I was more sanguine. After all, this was the Middle East, not America – where no-smoking laws have now gone so far as to make cigarettes off-limits even at the beach (try telling that to a toned Israeli toting a matkot paddle). But back in 1984, who was I to judge a nervous people in a region far more dangerous than where I grew up, letting off a little steam with a puff here and there? Well, actually it was more than a little bit here and there. When I arrived in the country, Israel had only recently enacted a ban on smoking on Egged public transportation, but it was not yet strictly enforced.
I remember being astounded that people were smoking on buses. That had been banned years before in the US, at least in California where I grew up. (Israel today has prohibited smoking even at outdoor bus and railway stops.) One of my least pleasant Israeli executive encounters was when I was called into the office of the chairman of the board of the hi-tech company where I was working in 2002. The chairman needed me to do some copywriting for him; he smoked cigarette after cigarette in his private office the entire time we sat together. I probably should have said something but, you know, he was the chairman of what was then one of Israel’s most successful hi-tech companies, worth millions, and I was lucky to be driving a Mazda 3 company car.
He got his comeuppance in 2006, when he was charged with multiple counts of fraud pertaining to US stock trading irregularities. He fled for another country, one without an extradition treaty – and where, I suspect, they have less of a smoking ban. He’s still there.
I was never a smoker. On the contrary, as a teenager I was such a stickler for smokefree air around me that I would leave the room during meetings of the Jewish youth group I was a member of whenever someone lit up. I did the same thing when my father, who smoked a pack a day for decades, would pull out a Pall Mall to enjoy while watching All in the Family or The Mary Tyler Moore Show. My brother joined me, and our joint boycott eventually convinced him to quit.
I wish I could say it turned his health around, but who knows? He eventually died of lymphoma. (A Mayo Clinic study shows a clear connection between smoking and the development of this, the fifth most common form of cancer.) Even before my father died, smoking had been one of those things that baffled me to no end. How can it be that perfectly logical adults continue to smoke when we know definitively that smoking kills? How is that tobacco companies are even allowed to stay in business? I’m all for capitalism, but we don’t allow Teva to sell strychnine pills to kids to boost the bottom line.
Things, of course, have gotten better.
Remember flying in the 1960s and ’70s, when there were smoking and non-smoking sections on airplanes? How did that ever make sense? If I was sitting in the row directly in front of the smoking section (which was often the case), was an invisible air curtain going to magically protect me from secondhand smoke? It took until 1988 for smoking to be forbidden, and then it was only on flights under two hours in the US. That was extended to flights of six hours or less in 1990. Amazingly, international flights were not officially added to the ban until 2000 (although to be fair, many airlines banned the practice before then).
At the risk of sounding like an unoriginal stand-up comedian, every time I fly, I wonder why are there still “No smoking” signs above every seat. Don’t people know the rules by now? (The Internet has lots of suggestions, from “the signs need to be posted to make smoking officially against the law,” to “it’s not worth the extra cost to remove signs from 30-yearold planes that are due to be retired soon anyway.”) If I were El Al, I’d replace the signs with a reminder that switching seats if you don’t like the gender of the person next to you is strictly forbidden.
Just saying.
One of the thoughts I had after my run-in with the dancing smokers at Neveh Ilan was whether my mostly positive experience with smoke-free Israel has been a fluke, more indicative of the Anglo circles in which I travel than a broader trend. Apparently not. Indeed, Neveh Ilan might be the fluke.
Statistically, Israel is doing pretty well.
We placed 49th on a list of 185 countries in terms of the number of cigarettes consumed per adult. That put us slightly higher than the US at No. 51, but way below Eastern Europe and Asia, which remain in the lead. (Serbia topped the list as the country with the most smoking, in case you were wondering.) And I should be thankful that my suffering last week was brief, with no immediate physical harm – unlike an awkward event five years earlier, when I found myself at a raucous student party waiting to hear the Israeli band the Madboojah Project. I had been a fan of the group for years, but had never seen them in concert.
I decided to suck up my discomfort at being twice (and in some cases three times) the age of nearly everyone else in attendance.
But as the night wore on, and 1 a.m.
turned into 2, I couldn’t get past the smoking, which was everywhere. It was a cold night and, trying to blend in, I was wearing my favorite blue hoodie. When I noticed a draft in my sleeve, I looked down. Some idiot’s cigarette had burned a hole right through it. Furious and maybe a little insulted too, I left before the band came on.
At Neveh Ilan, my sweater remained intact, but only because I steered clear of the dance floor. Israeli smokers may have a long way to go, but I try to learn from my mistakes.
But really, smoking at weddings – is it a thing or not?
The author is a freelance writer who helps companies, brands and organizations become their own publishers, in order to rank higher on social media and search engines.