Everyday life in an extraordinary place.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Only in...Israel?

This Postcard from Israel was written on 1 June 2005.

When American franchises first began appearing on the Israeli urban landscape, I found it reassuring. A little slice of home, as it were. After all, one of my early beefs with Israeli life had been that the shops and merchandise were unfamiliar. Not that I really craved a Big Mac, but it was comforting to know that if I really wanted to, I could go buy one. But just as too many servings of hamburgers and french fries (take your pick among McDonald's, Burger King, or their Israeli counterparts) or slices of pizza (Pizza Hut, Domino's, etc) are bad for your health, I've come wonder if maybe too much American pop culture is bad for Israel's societal well-being.

It's not just fast food, either. Today we buy our school supplies at Office Depot, our music CDs at Tower Records, and our home repair tools at Ace Hardware. Birthday gifts come from Toy "R" Us, and we can pick up the latest Disney DVD at our neighborhood Blockbuster Video vending machine. Even the Israeli stores have American-sounding names; the various supermarkets we patronize are called things like Mega, Jumbo, Metro and Universe Club.

And once you get inside the supermarket, you'll have no trouble finding your favorite brands, both American and European: Nestle, Hagen Daas, Wrigleys, Frito-Lay, Reynolds, Ben & Jerry's, Skippy, and on and on. There's even a fairly new supermarket near us that carries a wide range of non-kosher foods, and is open on Shabbat (the Sabbath), to boot.

A major difference between the American chain stores and the classic Israeli shops is that the former are much larger and more impersonal. Strip malls and shopping centers are popping up on kibbutz-owned land outside of cities throughout Israel to accomodate these behemoths. As in America, many consumers are making their purchases outside of the downtown areas, which in turn are gradually deteriorating. Yes, those downtown shops are cramped, dark, and often dusty. They are usually closed between 1 p.m. and 4 p.m. Most of the shops are not conveniently located, and parking is problematic. But when I walk into my local yarn shop in the center of town, I know the names of the owner and her assistants, and they know mine.

This is what we are losing in the process of Americanizing Israel. We are sacrificing that personal contact that was once a central part of the shopping experience. That's just what shopping used to be: an experience, an adventure, an outing. The shmoozing about family and politics was the prelude to the search for and advice about the items to be purchased. Negotiating the price was a requisite element of the visit, and the friendly farewells brought each encounter to a close. Somehow I just can't imagine such a scenario at Office Depot.

In our quest for more things American - for more efficiency, more selection, for just plain more - we are losing that personal element that brought us together. We are so busy looking at what we don't yet have that we can no longer see clearly all that we are letting go. I've begun to ask myself, why should I wish that the place I've chosen to be would become more like the place I decided to leave behind?

(c)Amy Samin

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