Everyday life in an extraordinary place.

Sunday, September 21, 2008


This Postcard from Israel was originally written on 14 March 1999

It may be that Moses brought 10 Commandments down from Mount Sinai, but there is an unofficial 11th commandment here in Israel; one that is obeyed more than all of the other 10 put together. What is this code of conduct? this rule for righteous behavior? Just this: "Thou shalt not be a sucker."

In Hebrew, the name for someone who is gullible, naive, or simple "too" kind or generous is "fryer." Basically, if you slow down to let the car that is trying to merge onto the freeway get in, you are a fryer. If you have an overflowing shopping cart, and you let the lady with a crying baby who just wants a carton of milk go in front of you at the check-out stand, you are a fryer. The worst thing you can do, one of the biggest insults you can hurl at someone, is to imply that he is a sucker.

If you ask tourists who have visited here, they will probably tell you that Israelis are among the rudest, most aggressive, and impatient people they have ever met. Many Israelis think nothing of opening a closed door (in an office, even a home!) without knocking first. Israelis are also very opinionated. They will give you directions even if they have no idea how to get there; they will tell you how you should be feeding your child, even if they have no children themselves. But if you tell them they are rude, they will be surprised, hurt even. Maybe it is a matter of living in a country that has been in wars on or close to home soil in every decade of its existence. Maybe it has something to do with the hard living conditions people endured during the early decades of Israeli statehood. Maybe it's part of that sense of being a small community that I mentioned once before. I really don't know.

Many Israelis, in turn, think that Americans are phony and frivolous. They think we smile too much, and don't mean it when we do. They especially despise the expression, "Have a nice day." It seems so meaningless to them. They don't see the point in pleasantries and euphemisms. "Say what you mean, and mean what you say" seems to be their motto. While I appreciate their directness, I would also appreciate some courtesy.

But even children aren't taught good manners, in the way we all were. In one of my daughter's favorite Israeli television shows, one character tries to teach the other about good manners. She tells him that if he says "please" and "thank you" when he asks someone to do something, then the other person MUST comply. Well, the second character thinks this is terrific, and immediately, in the nicest possible way, asks the first character to please do this, then please go there, then please do that... Until finally the first character explodes and tells him, "You're getting on my nerves, please!" To which he replies, "Thank you." The message kids get? Manners are good - for a laugh.

On the other hand, I once read a joke that an Israeli is someone who will knock you down when he pushes past you to be first in line, but when he realizes he has broken your leg, he will carry you on his back to the hospital. In some ways, this is also true. I can still remember the terrorist attack on a military bus stop during morning rush hour at a very busy intersection not far from my in-laws' home (this was in January of 1995, my first week living in Israel). A bomb went off, and of course many young soldiers were hurt. The terrorists knew their target, however. They had planted a second bomb to go off several minutes after the first. Why? Because they knew that many people passing by on their way to work would immediately stop to try and help the victims of the first explosion. That way, the terrorists could net even more victims. And that is exactly what happened. There is no such thing here as "Don't get involved."

Which is odd, when you think of it. You're a sucker if you give up your place in line, but not if you put your life on the line to help someone in need.

(c) Amy Samin

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