A few years ago when Joshua’s sister and brother-in-law were visiting us from Israel, we took a late afternoon walk through Central Park, winding up outside Lasker Pool just before 7pm. Precisely at 7, the lifeguards all started to blow their whistles, indicating that the pool was closing, and within 3 or 4 minutes the place was empty. Joshua’s brother-in-law shook his head and said, “Americans are amazing. This is amazing.” ”Why?” I asked. “This would never happen in Israel,” he said. “No one would just leave because the lifeguards blew their whistles.” “But the pool is closing,” I said (in my very American way.) “Right,” he said, “but in Israel you’d have to start telling people the pool was closing at least 30 minutes in advance in order to get everyone out by 7. Some people would pretend they didn’t hear the whistles, others would argue that they’re playing with their kids and refuse to leave… Stuff like that.”
Even after almost 20 years of marriage to an – admittedly atypical – Israeli man, I am sometimes still surprised at the typically Israeli penchant for ignoring the rules as long as possible, and forgoing all social niceties and politeness that are second nature here in the States. Israelis are called, and call themselves, “Sabras”. A sabra is a type of cactus found in abundance in Israel. It is sweet on the inside and prickly on the outside and is a remarkably accurate symbol. Once you are on the ‘inside’, there is no warmer or more hospitable group of people, but until you are, watch out for the thorns!
Lines, for example. Lines are a fuzzy concept at best in Israel, as is waiting your turn. This first becomes evident at the airport (we flew El Al, which is Israel’s national airline). Unlike any other airline I’ve ever flown, El Al doesn’t bother to board people by row or zone. Why? Because no one would pay attention to them, even if they did. About 20 minutes before boarding time, a large mass of people gather at the gate, with everyone jockeying to get closer to the front. The airline does make a pre-boarding announcement, at which point the group surges forward and those who actually need assistance or who are in First or Business Class rush to hand their tickets to the attendants in order to board before everyone else. When I asked a man in front of us if Business Class (which we flew for the first time on this trip) had been called, he looked at me like I’d lost my mind. ”It doesn’t matter. We can board whenever we want. That’s why we pay more!”
Right. Silly me.
For the two weeks we spent in Israel, whether we were boarding trains, walking down stairs or making our way through a crowded market, people shoved, jostled and elbowed their way by us when we didn’t move fast enough, without an “excuse me” or a “sorry” ever passing their lips.
It’s not rude, to their minds. It’s just the way it is.
That said, I realized how most of the time the people with whom you interact over the course of a day are often not family or friends, but the people you pass on the street; the guy you sit next to on the bus; the person in front of you in the grocery store. When none of those people are pleasant, it becomes a chore to go out and face something as generally innocuous as a crowded ice cream stand. Rather than a few minutes wait and possibly some idle small talk, it is an exercise in perseverance and a test of will.
There are many wonderful things about Israel, and I would say the sweetness inside the sabras almost makes up for the prickly exterior. I understand how living in a country where you are literally surrounded by your enemies might make you more than a little wary and possibly even overly aggressive.
So I guess we can cut them some slack.
After two weeks, however, I was relieved to stand in line at U.S. Passport Control, knowing that no one would shove in front of me or push me aside. Buying breakfast in the arrivals area at JFK, I felt tangible relief when the guy next to us in line said “excuse me” before reaching in front of me to take a bottle of juice.
It’s good to be home.