David Brooks on Israeli Culture:


Israel is a country held together by argument. Public culture is one long cacophony of criticism. The politicians go at each other with a fury we can't even fathom in the U.S. At news conferences, Israeli journalists ridicule and abuse their national leaders. Subordinates in companies feel free to correct their superiors. People who move here from Britain or the States talk about going through a period of adjustment as they learn to toughen up and talk back.

Ethan Bronner, the Times' Jerusalem bureau chief, notes that Israelis don't observe the distinction between the public and private realms. They treat strangers as if they were their brothers-in-law and feel perfectly comfortable giving them advice on how to live.

One Israeli acquaintance recounts the time he was depositing money into his savings account and everybody else behind him in line got into an argument about whether he should really be putting his money somewhere else. Another friend tells of the time he called directory assistance to get a phone number for a restaurant. The operator responded, "You don't want to eat there," and proceeded to give him the numbers of some other restaurants she thought were better.

I'll add two anecdotes. When I was in Tel Aviv in December, it was 70 degrees and sunny during the day. Nevertheless, most Israeli children were bundled up in winter parkas. Needless to say, my kids were wearing spring or summer clothes. You probably have guessed the punchline: complete strangers kept haranguing me about how it's cold out, and my children need to be wearing coats.

Also, a Jewish colleague of mine was in Israel for a wedding. As part of his security check at the airport upon his departure, the security official asked him if he was Jewish. He said yes. He was then asked if he had a bar mitzvah (which is usually the precursor to asking you which part of the Torah you read from, or where your bar mitzvah was held, or what synagogue your family belonged to). He replied, "no". The security official responded, "well, you really should consider it."

And I'll also second Brooks on this: "As an American Jew, I was taught to go all gooey-eyed at the thought of Israel, but I have to confess, I find the place by turns exhausting, admirable, annoying, impressive and foreign." Indeed, I find it very foreign, even though I speak Hebrew well enough to carry on a conversation, have an Israeli wife, and went to Zionistic Jewish schools where many of my teachers were Israeli.

The foreigness of Israel isn't that surprising, in context, beyond the most obvious points mentioned by Brooks. While the vast majority of American Jews are descended from the great wave of Eastern European immigration from 1880-1920, around half of all Israeli are of Middle Eastern or North African ancestry. Israel has a much higher percentage of Holocaust survivors and their descendants than the United States, as well as a much higher percentage of immigrants from the former Soviet Union. Jews are a majority, not a minority. (Almost) everyone does military service, including extreme leftists. Reform and Conservative Judaism, which dominate American Jewish life, have made little impression on Israel. Non-Orthodox Jews in Israel rarely attend synagogue, even on High Holidays, and, for obvious reasons, there is no such thing as a Jewish community center, or Hebrew School, or Jewish Summer camp, or other markers of the American Jewish experience. Until 25 or so years ago, Israelis lived in the kind of statist environment (where it took seven years to get a phone from the state-owned telephone company) that Americans would find absolutely unacceptable. And so on.

The bar mitzvah story reminded me of the time an Israeli at my workplace, whom I didn't even know very well, suddenly launched into an impassioned lecture about how disappointing it was that I'm a non-observant Jew and how I really should think about spending more time with the Torah, etc. I mean, we all know people who can be a little bit inappropriate on matters like religion, but this was someone who worked under me (and didn't get a great review that year, might I add). A different cultural norm is part of what might make someone think that sort of thing would be appropriate.
4.17.2009 3:57pm
Tony Tutins (mail):

They treat strangers as if they were their brothers-in-law and feel perfectly comfortable giving them advice on how to live.

The giver of unsolicited advice is also characteristic of German-speaking countries: the Besserwisser or Mr. Know-it-all.
4.17.2009 4:06pm
Bill Harshaw (mail) (www):
Did you agree this: "Israel is, in large measure, a Middle Eastern country, and the Israeli-Arab dispute is in part an intra-Mideast conflict." ? That idea would seem to say Israeli culture is shaped by being a party to a conflict.

Do you find Israel "more foreign" than Western European countries or Mexico?
4.17.2009 4:12pm
David Hecht (mail):
Hm. Actually, the description sounds exactly like the New York City I grew up in, back in the 1960s: a New York where--I need hardly emphasize--Jews were the ethnic face of the City (it used to be said that there were more Jews in New York than in Jerusalem: that New York was the biggest Jewish city in the world). Coincidence?

The joke used to be, "New Yorkers aren't hostile to strangers, they're the friendliest people on the planet. They're just very, very intense about it!" Or this one: "You need directions in New York. What do you do? You buttonhole some random stranger to ask, then, while he's telling you, two or three other people overhear the conversation, butt in, and get involved in a debate about the best way to get there."

I still have some friends in New York (I live in Northern Virginia now), and they've visited Israel several times. One of them--who loathes traveling--says he's never felt more at home anywhere outside New York than in Israel.
4.17.2009 4:47pm
To err is human. To kibitz is Israeli.
4.17.2009 4:52pm
DavidBernstein (mail):
Do you find Israel "more foreign" than Western European countries or Mexico?
That's not a meaningful comparison, because I only speak Hebrew and English.

The point that I'd find Israel even more foreign if I wasn't from New York City is well-taken. NYC and Israel not only have some Jewish cultural attributes in common, but also have in common attributes of cultures dominated by immigrants.
4.17.2009 4:55pm
Daniel J.:
Interesting. I grew up in laid back California. My dad is Israeli, but came to the U.S. as a teenager. And I don't speak Hebrew. Yet I have felt completely at home in Israel the couple time I've been.
4.17.2009 4:57pm
George Weiss (mail) (www):

is that worse than the people who try to set you up with other people that that they have never even met before?
4.17.2009 4:58pm
I believe there are English speaking countries in Western Europe...
4.17.2009 5:00pm
BooBerry (mail):
Reminds me of the last time I was in Israel. A couple of us got into a cab in Tel Aviv and requested to go to a breakfast place that had come highly recommended. The cab driver listened to where we wanted to go, but then told us that the place in question was crap and that we wanted to go to another place. We argued for a minute, but eventually relented and he drove us to where he had recommended. His place was excellent, so I guess the story ended well. Anyway, Israelis are obviously pushy, but I think that may also stem from the influx of German Jews in the late 20s and 30s (who, along with their descendants, are aptly described by a Yiddish or German word I know forget but which means something akin to a pushy perfectionist).
4.17.2009 5:12pm
"but this was someone who worked under me (and didn't get a great review that year, might I add)."

hey, i think he should get some extra credit for bringing diversity to workplace
4.17.2009 5:53pm
in the CBS TV show NCIS, mossad agent Ziva says, "we shoot such men in Israel" (referring to cheating boy friends or some such) - that is the extent of my knowledge of the promised land. so this discussion is enlightning!
4.17.2009 5:56pm
DavidBernstein (mail):
"I think that may also stem from the influx of German Jews"

I actually, the German Jews, known as Yekkes, were renowned (and mocked) for their formality and politeness.
4.17.2009 6:24pm

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