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.