5 Things I Liked about Living in Israel as an American (and 5 Other Things I Didn’t Like So Much)

70 years of Israel! Happy birthday!

There are so many choices for what I could write about for Yom Ha’atzmaut (Israeli Independence Day). No doubt a lot of people would use this day as an opportunity to fortify their own political opinions.

As someone who has lived in five different countries and have been to nearly twenty others, I tend to see countries as “cultural canisters” more than political entities (especially given that I don’t do much work related to government or politics).

I’m not going to write about anything related to the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict this time. Today is a day to celebrate all that is Israel and I am very unequivocal about my hope for peace in the future (if not the present) and I don’t need today to prove that.

Today I’m going to open up about my experiences in the Holy Land as a human being, and someone who is very much intrigued, if not obsessed, with the differences between nations and cultures.

Here are some things that I liked and…didn’t like so much…about living in Israel. (I’ve been there three times, 2009, 2012 and 2015, the first time for half a year).

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Didn’t Like So Much: The Country Sometimes Feels like Jewish Teenager Disneyland

 

I can imagine pretty much every Israeli is nodding their head at this point. There is value in getting young people to experience places, especially ones with deep political stories and historical significance and no one can deny that.

With that said, while I have encountered groups of teenagers everywhere in my travels, especially in Western Europe, in Israel I feel that sometimes some of the tour operators may focus too much on “having a good time” perhaps at the expense of truly understanding what Israeli culture and the Israeli mind is all about.

Thankfully with the Paideia Institute I had not only responsible tour guides who asked and answered questions and shared their stories but also responsible tourists as peers—ones who made observations, listened, asked questions and realize that they are there to build bridges and create mutual understanding rather than party, hook up, have fun, etc.

Obviously not ALL of the tourist operators are like this at all, and I’ve had deep conversations with many tourists about their struggles, insights and hopes. But I found myself having to constantly apologize on behalf of my “American compatriots” based on the behavior I saw from other people who held the same passport as mine.

Perhaps this will change with time.

 

Liked: A Lot of Israelis are Very Curious About the World and Have Global Experiences

 

Mention the name of a country you’ve been to to most Israelis and chances are they’ve visited there or know someone who is a permanent resident there. Hebrew is a language I’ve heard spoken in every country I’ve visited so far except for Greenland (English and Polish are the only two I’ve heard spoken in all of them).

Thanks to the fact that “galuti” (exilic) isn’t really considered an insult anymore, many Israelis relish their heritage of being “out of many, one people” (like Jamaica, another place with an interesting Jewish backstory!). Tel-Aviv can feel so globalized to a degree that would put Manhattan to shame.

Also with many Israelis I’ve seen that many of them speak other languages very well not also to mention know tidbits of very surprising ones (e.g. Vietnamese, Finnish, Indonesian, etc.)

Mention your recent trip to and Israel and you’ll have a conversation topic for the next thirty minutes guaranteed. And in a good way.

 

Didn’t Like So Much: Some Olim Idolized the Idea of Israel to a Fault

To me, Israel was a country with deep Jewish heritage and holy sites and many layers of history. The various groups of Olim all made their mark on the country in addition to the Arab Citizens of Israel as well (not also to mention guest workers from the Philippines, Sri Lanka, Romania, etc. and possibly anyone else I forgot)

It’s a fantastic place to experience, I love it very much and I love talking about it. And then there are some that see it as a glorified fortress to prevent the Jewish people from experiencing a second Holocaust and, sometimes…little beyond that. And sadly I’ve spoken to some staff members at Yad Vashem who see this as the primary function of the state.

As such, their devotion to it can seem a bit on the nationalistic side in which outsiders of any varieties are not only distrusted but also potential double-crossers, especially if they’re not Jewish. And sometimes not being Jewish in Israel, even as a tourist, can be a bit of a liability. (This is what some of my friends have told me. By contrast, my Judaism never really has been a liability in any of the places I’ve visited nor has being visibly foreign in places like Myanmar been a liability either.)

There are elements of some Israeli sub-cultures that can serve to blind people from dialogue, reason and mutual understanding and the fear of a second Holocaust, not also to mention the omnipresence of the Shoah in popular culture there, serves as an engine for it. But I can imagine that when peace comes to the region there won’t be a need for this anymore.

 

Liked: A Healthy Diet Can Usually Be the Path of Least Resistance

Yes, you can get more candy than you can know what to do with in Machaneh Yehuda, but also the omnipresence of vegan foods (Israel does have the highest percentage of vegans in the WORLD!) and chickpea specialties being good local favorites will help you tremendously towards whatever weight loss program you’ve been itching to try.

The falafel is Jerusalem is legendary and once you’ve had it, none other in the world will come close. Never, ever, ever.

 

Didn’t Like So Much: A Mutually-Enforced Barrier Between Israelis and Most Foreign-Born Residents, even Jews, even Olim, and Especially Americans and other Anglophones

 

Perhaps in part because of the “Disneyland for American Teenagers” trope I’ve discussed earlier, I’ve encountered many Israelis (including Yordim = Israelis living outside of “The Land) who somehow see Americans as almost a completely different species upon which they purport themselves the local experts. (To be fair, Israelis probably know American pop culture better than any nationality I’ve encountered, honorable mentions go to Germany and Iceland [both places with histories of American military presence, no big surprise]).

In Hebrew University many of my attempts to socialize were usually stuck among the Anglophones, even when I could manage Hebrew conversations just fine. And even then once or twice I got the line “we should continue in English because I’ve studied your language for more than you’ve studied mine” (I have literally got this treatment NOWHERE ELSE IN THE WORLD!)

Thankfully the majority of Israelis have been encouraging of my Hebrew studies both within and without the Holy Land….as it has been for all of my languages.

 

Liked: Deep Conversations about Meaningful Topics, as opposed to small talk, are Common

 

Ah, yes. In the United States, sometimes conversations will go “so…what do you do…?” Three minutes of platitudes followed by “oh, it was nice meeting you”.

In Israel this NEVER HAPPENS. Whether it go into a direction about religion, politics, cultural differences, American sitcoms (which I know nothing about) or my personal favorite: teach me how to swear in (Yiddish / Swedish / Burmese etc.)

I’ve remember SO, SO many soundbites from Israeli conversations that I’ve literally cited conversations I’ve had with Israelis more than I have from any other nationality!

 

Didn’t Like So Much: The Outward “Culture of Insensitivity” Can Be Off-Putting.

 

Yes, Americans care about their “feelings” and “smiling all the time” very often (at least this is what people who have “hyphenated American” identities have also told me and I’d have to agree as a TCK myself). That said, there is a certain outward machismo that not only took me time to get used to but was genuinely STRESSFUL during my first few weeks in Israel.

Usage of loud voices is an acquired taste not also to mention a culture in which confrontation is somewhat reveled in (in contrast to Sweden or Spain in which confrontation can cause people to freeze up in confusion).

Even some American students who have been studying in Israel for YEARS never fully adjust to this reality. It isn’t for everyone, and even some people who see Israel as the most beautiful place on earth where everything is perfect for Jews may encounter the fact that they may never fully grow used to this element of the culture.

 

Liked: The Educational Culture is Something to Marvel At.

 

Oh, yes. Israeli professors treat you like an equal, they respond on point and value every single one of your ideas. If they disagree with you, they do so respectfully. They’ll keep their politics a guarded secret (one friend told me that disclosing your politics as an Israeli professor means that you’ll get permanently banned from the profession, another friend laughed at the idea that any such policy could be meaningfully enforced).

In the United States, I’m sorry to say, a lot of professors sometimes have fragile egos in which they don’t want to consider their students viewpoints and often want to force their viewpoints on others. NEVER, EVER among Israeli professors have I encountered this, not even among Ulpan teachers.

The rest of the world needs to learn something from this idea of “learning as equals”.

 

Didn’t Like So Much: You May Sometimes Be Barely Able to Finish a Sentence in Conversing with Israelis.

 

When I was in Poland, I had tour groups from Britain / Chile / Norway / Iceland / the US / Canada (keep in mind that this was before my “polyglot awakening” in 2013 / 2013 and so in 2011 I was really capable of only giving tours in English and Yiddish and not much else. Okay, I could use some Hebrew, Spanish, Russian and Polish but sometimes I’d have to use English in between. )

British teenager groups -> tended to listen to what I said. A bit like me putting on a show for them with puppets.

Israeli family group -> if the British teenager group was like the puppet show, the Israeli family group was like if I would be tackled in the middle of the show, all of the puppets taken from me and then they start making their own show in which I have the occasional comment.

It’s really charming to reminisce on but again, like so many things Israeli, this is an acquired taste, one that many people, even Olim, never fully acquire.

 

Liked: Every Day in Israel Feels Like an Adventure.

 

Between the weather and the fact that few people treat you like strangers, and that people want to talk to you and get to know you, and ask you your opinions about honest topics even if they met you a few minutes ago, Israel feels like an RPG overworld in the best way.

There’s always something new to explore, a conversation to be had, a weather to marvel at, and a place and a people you never truly forget and that will always be in your hearts.

 

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Happy birthday, Israel!

6 Reasons You Should Consider Learning Modern Hebrew (Even if You’re Not Jewish)

Llun Jared Gimbel.

Today is Israeli Independence Day, and yes, it is a Hebrew phrase that has caused many a foreigner to struggle pronouncing it: “Yom Ha’atzma’ut”. For those curious, it is just the literal translation of “independence day” (yom = day ha = prefix indicating “the” “atzmaut” = independence, abstract nouns, or verbs that can be expressed as nouns, often end in “-ut”)

Like so many other students in the Ulpanim, I struggled with Hebrew, and even more strongly I struggled with Israeli culture, that my father told me would be very similar to that of the U.S. but my experience in the country indicated that it was anything but.

I have to actually start writing a listicle in honor of “Yom Ha’atzma’ut”, so I will segway into reason no. 1.

 

  1. Israeli culture is refreshingly human.

 

In the United States, I often feel that a lot of people hide their emotions, hide their true feelings and often are considerably difficult to read. A lot of this may have to do with Hellenism combined with various forms of Protestant theologies, indicating that “showing emotions is bad” (in the Nordic Countries with the possible exception of Iceland, this is very much the case, as well as German-speaking countries in Europe)

Israel has very much the opposite problem, in which the directness is perceived by many westerners as “rude”. Many Israelis also believe that this is unique to their country in particular, but I’ve seen in this most of southeastern Europe as well as in Poland.

Israelis will become your friends more easily, they will ensure that you become a better person, and they will criticize you honestly and sometimes maybe a bit too strongly. This may be  harsh at first, but after a lot of time in Israel and heading to a place like Connecticut, you’ll probably think (like I did) that you are surrounded by “softies”.

Many of them will be forthright about their political opinions and even if you disagree with everything they say, they will still be your friend. After all, as one of my friends put it, “I have friends from both the extreme right and the extreme left. If we all stopped talking to each other, the country would fall apart in a week”.

Israel, on one side, does have the army culture, but in many other areas it is anything but a nation of conformists. A go-getter attitude that “sticks it to the man” is something that motivated me to do things like start this blog and start putting videos of myself online.

Speaking of videos…

 

  1. Israeli Comedy is what All Other Comedy Wishes It Could Be

Have yourself a look:

If you spend your time among Israelis, you may find your sense of humor sharpened to a degree you didn’t even think possible. You’ll find yourself looking for ways to find humor in everything, even the things that Americans wouldn’t even dream of joking about. It goes without saying why the Israelis needed to develop humor since before the state was founded.

Learning Hebrew only makes it more possible with being able to interact with this brand of humor in its most authentic form.

In a world growing ever more fearful, we need more laughter. If you want to laugh, there is seldom a better choice than with the Hebrew of contemporary Israeli TV, Radio and print media.

  1. Hebrew is a gateway to learning how languages work outside of the Indo-European bubble.

 

As a seasoned polyglot I seem to divide languages into two categories (and no, I’m not talking about “Disney’s animated films are dubbed in this language” vs “These same films are not dubbed into this language”).

The Indo-European Language family is confusing, enchanting and mesmerizing. Not only that, the VAST majority of  languages that people study are on the Indo-European spectrum, which goes from Bangladesh and Sri Lanka all the way to Iceland.

Hebrew was my first non-Indo European Language, and the more I’ve come to studying non-Indo European Languages, whether they be something like Finnish or even further afield like Greenlandic or Burmese, I’ve noticed that they provide an exquisite quality that Indo-European Languages just simply can’t provide, whether they be something commonly studied like Spanish or even something a lot more rarely studied such as Gujarati.

Especially online, people tend to make would-be polyglots very afraid of non-Indo European Languages (Hebrew and Turkish and Finnish and Mandarin Chinese have very few words in common with English, unlike French, which does! French = eezy! Hebrew = hard! Be afraid! Ha ha ha!)

Ancient Hebrew is a glimpse of a language that existed way before Indo-Europeans proceeded to influence virtually every language out there (although there are a handful of words in common with Indo-European Languages of the Sea People).

Contemporary Hebrew is a great way to “test the waters” to see how a non-Indo European Language works (hint: a lot of them still have a lot of Indo-European influence). There might be a lot of struggling in learning how the language functions with verbs and prefixes and suffixes, but later on you’ll find tons of expressions taken mostly from Yiddish, Slavic Languages, English and French.

You may find yourself so enchanted by it that you may want to learn other languages that aren’t Indo-European as well! A highly rewarding experience!

 

  1. Israeli Music is Like Daydreaming in mp3 form.

 

Not a lot of songs that make you actually want to get up and do chores, right?

If you like nostalgic tunes that bring you back to your childhood living room, or need a hugging feeling once in a while, Israeli music will have a lot of that! (Not also to mention dance tunes and heavy metal, but that’s for another time!)

Check. Out. This. Channel. Now.

  1. Israelis travel EVERYWHERE

What I am about to say is not an exaggeration:

I have encountered Israelis in every country I have EVER visited.

Just got out from teaching a Hebrew class, and during that class I remember my meeting with an elite from Hillel International.

He told me a joke:

Scene: Peru

He asked his Quechua-speaking tour guide: “What are the most populous nations on earth?”

Tour Guide: China is first place, and then the United States, then Israel. I see Israelis everywhere!

Israelis are probably the world’s most seasoned travelers, and if you wear a yarmulke or other Jewish identifier or sign that you speak Hebrew in public, prepare to get “Shalomed” very often! In Berlin, this happened to my brother once every five blocks. Not a joke!

You’ll be able to get yourself free drinks or travel advice and compliments wherever you bring your Hebrew. Even if it isn’t good enough yet, you’ll definitely manage to open up people, as is the case with any language.

Most Israelis will also be really happy to help you learn Hebrew, even though there may be a few others that may have become disenchanted with the various vexations and “drama” of the culture. Once I even got told “let’s continue this conversation is English, because I speak English better than you speak Hebrew” (These are in the minority! I promise!)

  1. You can use your knowledge of Hebrew to be a peacemaker

 

A lot of Israelis (not the majority) have this understanding (possibly because of the school system) that the world hates them, and that they don’t win Eurovision because of anti-Semitism and that they are a point of derision throughout the whole world and no one wants their country to exist.

I’ve told ton of people from throughout the world (yes, even from the Arab world) that I speak Hebrew and that I have lived in Israel. It’s primarily the government policies that are the issue, not ordinary people, the language(s) or the culture (all of which are very much admired, actually! Same with all other countries that have their governments “appear in the news” very frequently)

I’ve seen some of my non-Jewish friends studying in Israel and it has been tough for them, no doubt. If you are a non-Jew (full disclosure: I’m an Ashkenazi Jew myself), and find yourself enchanted by Israeli comedy or the Bible or Israeli tourists or the beaches in Tel-Aviv, let people know! Tons of Israelis want to meet you and be friends with people like you!

Who knows? Maybe Peace will come to the region (or other regions) because of people like you!

And maybe the journey to world peace will begin with your journey to learn a language!

Who knows?