Everyday life in an extraordinary place.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

The Israeli Lifestyle

This Postcard from Israel was originally written on 8 May 1999

I'm not sure whether it's the climate, the country's socialist beginnings, the equalizing experience of serving in the army, or some other force at work, but the lifestyle here in Israel is definitely casual. Everyone who has seen a news broadcast showing our politicians in meetings or being interviewed has probably noticed that the great majority of our public figures dress casually, even while on the job.

This is changing in recent years, but there are still a great many members of the government who wear open-necked shirts, usually short sleeved. No suits and ties for these gentlemen.

When my older daughter was in preschool, I noticed that many of the other mothers wore their house slippers when bringing their kids to school. At first I found this very odd, but I realized that in a way, people see different places (such as the preschool) as an extension of their own home.

This informal attitude is evident in many other areas, as well. When an Israeli gets into a taxi, he sits next to the driver, not in the back seat (perhaps the better to tell the driver the best route to take?). To sit alone in the backseat is considered slightly ridiculous.

Until recently, most people didn't bother to call and ask to come visiting - they simply showed up at your house. Calling ahead was seen as somehow artificial...too planned. By the same token, people will often say, "Come by for coffee sometime." They mean exactly that - don't wait for a formal invitation, just drop by some day when you feel like drinking coffee. If you don't take them up on this offer, the next time they see you, they will ask, "Why don't you ever come over?"

In school, students call their teachers by the first name. They call their friends' parents by their first names, too. Or, if they don't know your first name, they refer to you by the way they define you: e.g. Eema shel Liat (Liat's mom). Teachers speak to parents this way, as well. In fact, just about the only people who call you "Mrs. -" are the prople who try to sell you things over the telephone.

In the evenings, especially as the weather turns warm, and then hot, you can find your neighbors outside in front of their homes. This is particularly true on our street. Instead of asphalt, our block-long street is paved in bricks. It is slightly narrower than a regular street, and is intended to be quieter, more free from through traffic. From about 6 pm until darkness falls, everyone is on the street: kids riding bikes, kicking soccer balls and roller skating; mothers pushing baby carriages; fathers walking the dog; people everywhere talking about the news, politics, the kids. Although every house on our street has a backyard, most families don't use it during the evening hours. Somehow, this twilight time is meant to be communal.

I think this informality brings us closer together. There is generally a "we're all in this together" mentality in this country. This can lead to closeness, but it can also lead to jealousy, contempt, or sheer lack of consideration - kind of like the way siblings of a certain age treat one another. It can be quite exasperating, but it also breaks down any sense of isolation. It's hard to feel alone when you have so many sisters and brothers ready to talk, share, argue, advise, gossip, and laugh with you.

(c) Amy Samin

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