Israel is like an island in the Middle East. It is an incredibly unique country that is unlike both the East and the West. Its complex combination of ancient and modern history has resulted in a vibrant diversity that at times makes me feel like I am strolling through the streets of a busy European city, and at others, like I am trekking through the deserts of the Middle East. While observing the culture of Israel the past few months I have made a few observations that I find quite amusing. So here is a short list of my favorite cultural differences that I have witnessed. Some totally logical, some a bit absurd, a few completely outrageous, but all uniquely Israel.
1. People talk way louder than necessary.
Whether they are talking directly to you, or better at you, on the phone, or just to someone standing an arms length away, the volume is turned up to maximum. I have no idea why this is, but I guess it just is. Takes some time to get used to, but I think my ears have adjusted. Without an inkling of Hebrew, every conversation seems like a massive debate in which participators are mortal enemies. It is likely that they are just talking about where they want to eat lunch, but to an outsider you would never know. I should also mention the obscene amount of hand gestures that reinforces this idea that every conversation is a heated argument.
2. Teenagers carry around massive guns.
A two year conscription to the military service is compulsory for all Israelis when they turn 18. It is unlikely to go a day, or even a few hours, without seeing a teenager dressed in their military uniforms out and about. It is even more uncommon to see them without an assault rifle underneath their arm. Most of the time they are in uniform, but combat soldiers must also carry their weapons during off hours and at first sight it will appear as though civilians are carrying scary weapons.
This definitely startled me at first and I know it would probably do the same to most Americans. It was even more shocking when I began to imagine these teenagers to be my teenage students from back home. However, it feels completely normal now and at times comforting. Israeli gun culture is fundamentally differently than America’s. While teenagers carrying deadly weapons is a sight that often alarms Americans and other visitors, it is nothing out of the ordinary here.
3. The concept of boundaries is not part of the Israeli lexicon.
You will be asked how much you are making and how much this and that costs. They tell you how it is, no sugar-coating. Things are preached, not recommended. They don’t hold back when commenting about what you eat, how you eat, and how much. Always putting more and more on your plate and not taking no for an answer. This may seem different but I have come to love this about Israel. Everyone in Israel is mishpacha (family). Which means that everyone genuinely wants to help. They can, and do, tell you what to do but you begin to understand that they mean it with love.
4. There is no such thing as a line in Israel.
Apparently geometry is not part of the Israeli curriculum. A single file line segment is a rare and rather miraculous appearance. Lines become blobs of people who all strongly feel they deserve to be next. You have to learn to stand your ground, don’t just smile and let it go. Cut right back.
Anything goes. Curbs, sidewalks, the middle of the lane, or better yet the middle of a round-about. Direction doesn’t matter, just find somewhere your car can barely fit and go for it. “No parking” signs, or red sidewalks are just a recommendations ready to be ignored. It seems as though only the foreigners get the tickets, either that or the foreigners are the only ones to actually pay off their tickets…
6. Spelling is irrelevant.
When it comes to Hebrew translations, anything goes. The Hebrew alphabet is a writing system that lets the reader supply the appropriate vowel. There are 22 letters in the Hebrew alphabet, and all of them are consonants. Therefore, in standard written Hebrew, the vowels are implicit. This fact makes English translations interesting and up to writers’ digression. It is very common to see street signs for the same town kilometers apart with completely different spelling. The only important thing is that the phonetic pronunciation is somewhat similar. At times amusing, often confusing, and never consistent.
Shabbat means Sabbath and is Judaism’s day of rest. Extending from Friday at sundown to Saturday at sundown, the country enters into a peaceful sleep that is unlike anything I have seen before. I love how quiet the cities get, even Haifa and Tel Aviv feel like an entirely different planet. These are a few unique things about Shabbat:
- Public transportation directions on Google turn into walking directions. Yes, even Google Maps is shomer Shabbat.
- All shops and restaurants in the Jewish neighborhoods close.
- Shabbat is when families spend time celebrating together. It is a similar concept to weekends in America, but it is taken to a different extreme here. An extreme that I appreciate, as the meaning behind it is much more than just a break from the long work week. I love the communal aspect of this weekly tradition, the fact that it brings families together and separates them from the world outside their doors. I am mostly referring to the separation from technology…
- Shabbat is also prime time for cyclists. Saturday morning rides are religious here, as you can ride for miles and miles on usually busy roads without seeing more than 10 cars. Perfectly groomed bus lanes are yours for the taking and traffic lights are generally much more of a recommendation.
- The Sabbath elevator means that one of the elevators in most buildings automatically stops at every single floor and it is not necessary to push any buttons. This means that you better take the stairs or the other elevator or you will have an elevator experience that could last seemingly a lifetime.
Shabbat is a special time in Israel. It certainly means grocery shopping or going out to eat is a little bit more challenging, but the cultural and communal celebration is an experience I have come to value. However, I still have not adjusted to the fact that Sunday is the first day of the work and school week…
8. Security Procedures
Security is much more strenuous in Israel than in other countries. When you enter bus stations, train stations, malls, or even grocery stores, your bag will be searched and you may sometimes be asked to empty your pockets. However, profiling, both racial and otherwise, is definitely accepted here and possibly even encouraged. As a blonde American, I am generally waved through most checkpoints without even a glance.
9. Israeli’s are notoriously late.
The phrase: “early is on time, on time is late, and late is unacceptable” does not apply. People seem to take the brand of their watches seriously in Israel, but that certainly does not mean they take time seriously.
11. Grocery Shopping
While the grocery stores are actually quite similar to the ones at home, there are some striking differences.
- Don’t forget 5 shekels to get a cart or you will have to juggle all of your items in your arms. You think I would learn this lesson quickly, but believe me, I chronically forget and take on the challenge.
- Every big grocery store is equipped with a chicken and red meat butcher, a bakery that primarily specializes in pita, and a bulk food section.
- The freezer section is quite small and most of the store is taken up by the produce and dairy/fridge sections.
- Lines are consistently long and you can count on the checkout taking far too long.
- Shoppers always have carts that are over flowing. I am not sure if they just stock up on food or they have huge families to feed. My guess is it is the later.
- It seems as though the major shopping day in the States is Sunday, but here it is Friday right before Shabbat. There is nothing more dreadful than going shopping at this time, but it is well worth it to fight the crowds on Friday afternoon at the Shuk to get the best deals on produce.
- Online grocery delivery in Israel makes Amazon fresh look like a rookie. The big grocery stores are filled with professional shoppers who stroll the aisles, snack in hand, pulling items from the shelves to put in bags that get delivered to busy homes.
12. WhatsApp Voice Messages
This one is hard to get on board with. I still don’t understand the use of a voice message that expires, especially because Hebrew accents are often impossible to understand. However, I better get used to it because WhatsApp voice messages are all the rage. It is definitely socially acceptable to leave loud WhatsApp voice messages in quiet elevators or in the middle of a grocery line. Just send the text!
This is something I can get on board with. The crosswalks in Israel are separated at the median. There is one cross signal for each direction of the road. Thus, you could have a green for one side of the road, and then a red for the next. Maximum efficiency.
Another great thing about Israel. Maybe not unique, but definitely unexpected. I am not looking forward to going back to a country that has way to few round-abouts, but such a need.
15. Street Lights
A light does not simply go from green to yellow to red. In Israel the lights go from green to flashing green to yellow and then finally to red. It also doesn’t simply go from red to green. It goes from red, to red and yellow together and then, to green. You better start moving when you see that yellow or the honking will commence. Driving in Israel makes you feel like you are racing at a drag strip, you have to get the light timing just right.
16. Fitted Sheets
This one baffles me. Israel only has fitted sheets. It is near impossible to find just a normal sheet. Weird right?