Sunday, October 28, 2007

The internet and cable guy came to the apartment today in order to set it all up. I guess this would be a nice segue to talk about the general Israeli 'personality,' or the Israeli character, disposition, attitude, or whatever word describes how these natives conduct themselves.

A native born Israeli, any Jew that is born and raised in the land, is referred to as a sabra. In case you don't know, a sabra is a cactus fruit. As you absolutely do know, cactuses are guarded with a tough outside shell and sharp, painful spikes. The sabra fruit protects itself with a tough skin, granting the ability to withstand abrasions and bumps, and rigidity to stay in tact during many stressful environmental conditions. Despite the tough exterior, the sabra fruit is truly soft and juicy on the inside, a true delicacy! It is one of the greatest achievements of nature, to be so brash on the outside, while being so soft on the inside.

This is the Israeli! The native Israeli is loud, rude, pushy, and just generally everything that Americans consider a negative personality trait. They don't wait in lines. They allow cell phones to ring during inappropriate times, and then answer them and have a full conservation, without ever budging from their seat! Getting on and off the bus is like too many salmon fighting their way up a narrow stream in Alaska; shoulders push, elbows block. The most normal conversations appear to be shouting matches, with wild gesticulation, and an unknowing observer would be sure punches will follow! The Israeli has more than a tough exterior, but...

With only a smile, a genuine greeting, and a friendly question, this rude specimen is suddenly your best friend! Greetings between men typically include the word "achi," meaning my brother. Names are shared, stories intertwine, and suddenly you are invited to someone's house for dinner, or given a special deal at the store, or any other number of possible positive outcomes. This is the way of the Jew, at least as it is found in biblical stories: Abraham's most important trait was his hospitality. People often forget that Israelis are Jews! The transition from rude to apple-pie can take place, literally, in the span of 2 seconds, revealing the true persona. The Israeli is a softy on the inside, with true emotions, soft emotions of a desire for friendship and acceptance. Ironically, the Israeli, for all his brash exterior, is in many ways much more genuine than the southerns I grew up around. If someone here gives you a compliment, asks you a personal question, or befriends you, you can know that they are being serious! How often do we say in America, "oh you should come over sometime for a cup of coffee,"? And how often is that actually what we want to happen, that we want that person to come into our house, sit on our sofa, and drink our coffee? I'd bet to say not that often. How often do we smile towards others' faces, and then cast daggers with our eyes towards their backs? Of course you will find an Israeli that will do this, but if they really didn't like me, you'd know. They simply wouldn't drop the shell of impenetrable armor! For all the anger on the outside, the Israeli is the most genuine and personal creature I've ever met.

So why the tough attitude? Why act like jerks in the first place? The question is, how can such a nice person be so mean?

Can you blame them? Name the top 3 or so hated countries in the world, at least in terms of negative media or outspoken opponents: Iran, North Korea, Israel. The other two change over time, but Israel will always remain. Moreover, you can identify the origins of all groups of modern Israelis and see why they have grown to be strong on the outside: Russians from the anti-religious, anti-minority communist Soviet Republic; Ethiopians chased from their homeland; Mizrachi Jews chased from Middle Eastern countries with the advent of Israel, even after enduring hundreds of years of minority oppression; European Jews fleeing the Holocaust. If your father, and your father's father, and your father's father's father, ad infinitum, were raised in such hostile environments you too would learn to be tough, to let insults, sneers, and attacks roll more easily off your back. A member of a minority cannot live day to day when each day they let the majority take advantage and abuse them. You have to be strong enough to say, "You can't bother me, because I know who I am on the inside." The Israeli is like the sabra fruit, in that the tough exterior only protects the true nature of the entity: the inside.

That being said, Israelis are no longer Jews living in Russia or Iraq. They are now living among their fellows. Even though the world constantly berates and unfairly singles out Israel (for example, the only refugee group in the U.N. to have its own definition of 'refugee' is the 'Palestinian' Arabs), Israelis are slow to accepting the fact that they do not need to be tough towards their fellow Jews! We aren't the people to be yelled at, to be brushed aside, to ignore! We are one in the same here, we are in the same battle. The same struggle for survival. This attitude problem, the lack of manners, etiquette, and nicety is a huge issue in this brand-new state.

Knowing all of this from too many experiences, where a sabra that retains his tough shell towards you will really not help you anymore than necessary (which means they do a lackluster job and cut corners), I greeted him with my name, a warm smile, and asked him how he was doing. He got quickly to work on the cable, but it turned out that some of our wiring was less than perfect. He went into a different room, and I stood wondering how I could extend a helping hand. What do I know of cable problems?

I did what any American, any Virginian, would do! I offered him a glass of water. He accepted. Instantly he was a different man. We talked about politics, my decision to move to Israel, thoughts on Israel and society -- all standard topics. But then he said something I've heard a few times since I've been here, and it always seems so incongruous to me. He described the attitude of the Westerner that moves to Israel for ideological reasons (me), and how they feel as if they have entered heaven. He said, "but this isn't Heaven! This place can be hell! The life here is hard: everything is expensive, everyone hates us, the government is ineffective in domestic matters, and Israelis are so rude."

It isn't that Israelis don't understand what they are, and that it isn't ideal to be so brash. The problem is that to change an inborn personality trait is one of the hardest things to ever do! A classic rabbi once said something along the lines of, "It is harder to change one part of our personality than to memorize the entire Torah." To change the Israeli abrasiveness is synonymous with changing our own desires for cars, houses, or high-profile jobs. It's just not that easy.

One of my greatest difficulties in coming to Israel, a difficulty shared by many Westerners, is letting my casual politeness subside for a moment to realize how to actually get something done around here. Raise your voice. Gesticulate. Do Not Budge. These are hard for a shy, soft-spoken, patient, tolerant, semi-southern kid to grasp!

Fortunately, the Western voice is being heard here more and more, and I've actually even read a few op-ed pieces in the biggest Israeli newspapers on the importance of manners and politeness. In addition, I was talking to someone from Nefesh B'Nefesh, and I mentioned how hard it is for me to act like a sabra, how hard it is to jump onto a bus without first allowing everyone else to pass. Long story made short, I was nearly chastised on thinking that just because I moved here I had to act so rudely. Essentially, whatever happened to "leading by example?" That's one of my goals here, to never really be so rude. This place is making me tougher, as I've always been sensitive to what others say and do, but not in any way that makes me less polite.

(Note: Don't think that Israelis walk around screaming at each other, pushing others off cliffs, and kicking people for looking at them. Israelis are human like any of us. Think of this persona as more of a New York too-hurried-to-be-nice type of thing...).


Anonymous said...

This is great! I am from Virginia and am dating an Israeli. Him and his family are the most caring people I have ever met. When I first met his family they treated me as if they'd known me forever! Loved reading this!

L.H. said...

what a thoughtful and insightful essay! i am also from virginia, am (half) jewish, and thought i wanted to live in israel. i had met isrealis abroad and found them captivating. i appreciated their external outspokenness and chutzpah, and their inner warmth, generosity, and hospitality. but once i got to isreal, after a couple of months it all proved to be too much for me. i didn't want to become tough and rude, but if i wasn't, i felt people walked all over me.
yes, it's hard to change the manners you were raised with. that is why i am very conscious to teach my daughter to be polite to me and to everyone. but i also hope that i can encorporate the positive traits i found in isrealis - honesty and hospitality being top on the list. it's important to be polite, but i agree with you that when it crosses the line into falseness as it often does in america, that is less then ideal.
thank you for this blog, it really spoke to me!

Israeli by Day said...

L.H. - Glad you enjoyed it. Fitting in with Israelis while not losing your sense of self is difficult, but not impossible. I think I learned to walk that fine line in the army, but yeah, I understand the frustration!

Anonymous said...

Sorry I have lived witht he Israelis for 2 years and find them to be rude and will not give up real manners to fit in. If Americans are fake it is easy to see but this rudness is just too much. I am moving back to the USA and it is sad because I cam here with great desire to be part of this nation. I try to warn others who may not find this attitude so delightful.

Israeli by Day said...

Anonymous - I'm sorry to hear that you are so frustrated with Israelis that you are moving back to America. If you have a job and are able to survive there, I think you should stick it out. If you became closer friends with some Israelis I know you would find them easier to handle. I didn't really learn how to interact with them until I was in the army for 2 years - after that, I knew what the attitude was all about. You just have to be tough, which is easier said than done. I personally am a pushover in most affairs because I don't want to bother anyone, but being around Israelis makes it easier to ask for what you want. Somehow in Hebrew it seems less real, so I'm much more vocal than I would be in English. I think you should really give it another shot and just say "screw them" and do your own thing. If you're already there and doing ok financially, you're doing awesome.

I just know that I wish I was back in Israel, but here I am in America - everyone's certainly friendly, but I don't feel close to anyone the way I did with Israelis. The rawness of them makes it easy to also have raw positive conversations and emotions. You have to take the good with the bad!

Elaine Morrison said...

Very true! If you're going to live in Israel consider keeping it short as after the 2 year mark you cease to think like a tourist and Israeli patterns become your own. While I consider this to not be a bad thing for the reasons mentioned in the article, others back home are not of the same opinion. If a Jew is going to be drafted, go as a tourist until you learn the lay of the land and the language. I think acclimation lengthens foreigner army survival rates, but that's my opinion based on events in which foreigners thought they were guarding basically a beach but it was dangerous border territory and had disastrous results. There are other exciting beautiful places in the world and they are worth considering before having a try at the Middle East. That said, parts of that society are precious. It's a tough call.