Portrait of an Israeli

November 2, 2009 - 1:02 am No Comments

One of the things I enjoy doing whenever I travel is meeting the locals and figuring out what makes them tick. Tel Aviv gave me a good chance to do this.

Everyone, young and old, is pretty serious. I’m not sure if it’s because they have been hardened by their mandatory stints in the Israeli army and rocket attacks and constant security checks everywhere, or if it’s just a cultural thing from the days before Israel even existed, but people are direct and to the point. There are no friendly smiles or little nods when strangers meet in a store or pass on the sidewalk, no courtesy waves when you let someone into your lane. Interactions are practical and quick.

Drunk Israelis

There ARE people laughing and joking around, but those people are friends who already know each other. There are a few others who have smiled and extended themselves for us, but most of those people are in the hospitality industry. They are the people who work at hotels and book our tours and guide us around and work at airports and deal with tourists on a daily basis. But being nice to tourists is their livelihood, and I don’t think people who work in the tourism industry are ever representative of the true national personality.

There do seem to be some differences between older and younger Israelis. I’m not sure what the age cut-off is, maybe 40 or so, but there is definitely a distinctive personality for both.

Older Israelis always seem angry. Whether it’s the people I watched at Carmel Market or strangers on the street or people on a bus, older people have a permanent sneer on their faces. They are always on edge, waiting for that one little thing to send them into a screaming tantrum. Unless you are about to give them money, they are especially impatient with tourists. And in cars, they are even more impatient, honking at the slightest hesitation.

Is it just this particular generation that’s like that? Or do all young Israelis get like that eventually?

I spent most of my time socializing with younger Israelis, and most of the ones I’ve met are a little more chilled out than the older people. Although it would be a stretch for me to say that they look happy, they do generally seem to be comfortable with life. Most seem to have a sense of humor, but you have to crack the shell to get to it. My attempts at humor are usually appreciated but rarely reciprocated.

Conversations with some of the locals about the “illusion” of security in Israel were met with disdain. They insist that the guards ARE in fact well trained, but mostly in the practice of racial profiling. If someone is Arab in appearance, they might go so far as to perform a full strip-search on them, while more “Israeli-looking” people and regular tourist folk get a superficial check and a wave. Racial profiling seems to be appropriate and accepted here in Israel.

The clothes young people wear are typically European: tight pants and ill-fitting shirts with lots of black and neutral tones. Guys flaunt chest hair and old school haircuts.

Israel is a Middle Eastern melting pot, so you get a lot of different skin and eye and hair colors, a lot of different body types. There is some natural beauty here for sure, but the girls don’t make the most of it.

In general, the girls here just aren’t very feminine. Clothing is tame, with many girls wearing the same drab, ill-fitting clothes that guys wear. Little to no make-up. It’s also the seriousness that bothers me. Seriousness is a masculine quality. Girls are supposed to be fun and smiley and dainty, but they’re just not like that here. And their voices. All the girls seem to have raspy, old woman voices. Is it because Israelis are always yelling at each other? Is it because they all smoke? Is it a Middle Eastern genetic trait? And Hebrew isn’t the most feminine-sounding language, either. Like Russian or German, spoken Hebrew is full of harshness.

Call me a traditionalist, but I like to see girls dress and look and act like girls. Is that a Western attitude? Am I a superficial prick?

At the same time, one of the good things about this indifference to femininity is that the most attractive girls don’t know it. At home, attractive (and even mediocre-looking) girls are objectified from an early age, developing attitudes of entitlement and selfishness along with a low self-esteem. Getting into a relationship with a girl like that is like hitting yourself over the head with a frying pan. Attractive girls here don’t have any of that baggage.

One of the redeeming qualities about Israelis is that when you’re in, you’re in. There is a certain loyalty that develops between friends that you can feel. Garry and Sarah have definitely gone out of their way for us, accommodating our every desire. Elior and Eli were gracious hosts who fed me and showed me a good time. And the friends I made in Tel Aviv are all very cool.

Noa, Relly, and Me

Just trying to paint a picture based on my experiences. There are certainly exceptions to my above generalizations.

I’ve learned a bit of Hebrew here as well.

toe-dah : thank you
toe-dah rah-bah : thank you very much
b’va-kashah : you’re welcome (actually a multipurpose phrase, it seems)
slee-chah : (seems to be used to get somebody’s attention, like “excuse me” or “sorry”)
ken : yes (also how you can answer the phone)
lo : no
shek-a-leem, or sh’kaleem : plural for shekel
shach : informal plural for shekel, like “bucks” in the US
tay-eem mee-owed : very delicious
at tay-eem-ah mee-owed : you are very delicious (to a girl)
alechi tis-day-nu : go fuck yourself

Furthermore, there really is no “J” sound in Hebrew. The Hebrew pronunciation of Jerusalem is “yeh-ROO-shuh-LIE-im,” Jaffa is “YAW-foh,” and Jeff is “AW-some.”

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