Tough Israelis: 134,309,324 Points, Lauren: 3.5 Points And Gaining

January 4, 2011

Israelis are notoriously tough. Seriously. Just try standing in a line, bargaining at the Shuk (market) or boarding a bus and you’ll all too quickly discover exactly what I mean.

This toughness is an inherent part of the Israeli psyche. Although any visitor is certain to encounter this characteristic of Israel at some point during their stay, I am not sure of a specific cause to attribute it to.

Maybe it’s the culture of a country with mandatory military service that toughens people up, or maybe it’s from living in an often-hostile region with a recent war-strewn past. Or maybe it could be that the Tough Jew is a carnation of the Never Again mantra that many Jews are taught.

Whatever the reason, this tough attitude is ubiquitous. And all I can say is that despite the best efforts of my Tough Jew dad, I grew up in the East Side of Madison, deep in the heart of a fortress of aging hippies and lesbians. Needless to say, this upbringing certainly did not imbue me with the tough, take-no-shit attitude that would be helpful here.

As a result of this, everyday interactions in Israel can be a little overwhelming for a hippie-raised girl from the Midwest. The bold, in-your-face attitude prevalent in Israel, often with a hint of a potential argument just under the surface, is something I still am getting used to.

I mean my school introduced peer-mediators in Kindergarten to reduce conflict. The lefty culture of my community and upbringing has emphasized the importance of kindness and unity and respectful courtesy for as long as I can remember. Not joking, my school actually called your parents if you accidently raised your voice in an argument, and awarded tie-dyed tee shirts and Clementine oranges to kids who received the highly coveted Good Friend To Others Award every semester.

While I did rock some bomb tie-dyed shirts back in the day, unfortunately the neighborhood hippies left me woefully unprepared for much of Israeli culture.

For example, I’m having trouble dropping the drilled into me “wait-your-turn” principle. This makes getting food at a street vendor or checking out of any store in a timely manner… well, a challenge.

Israelis are assertive and definitely do not follow the wait-your-turn principle. They will nudge, budge, yell or simply step over you to reach the clerk. This, combined with their natural advantage of fluent Hebrew and actually being able to communicate what it is that they want, means I generally spend a lot of time every day getting jostled in lines.

My normally boring daily errands have been transformed into dynamic and emotionally charged adventures by tough Israelis: the oddly belligerent unhelpfulness of most store clerks, the blatant hostility of EVERY employee at the post office and the frustratingly competent and always tough Israeli public. My days are filled with victories over my unknowing foes in lines or behind counters, and also with crushing defeats from aloof clerks, mystifying bureaucracy and the skills of much more adept opponents.

But I’m starting to see cracks in the armor of the tough Israeli…well two cracks.

I will recount an experience that helps exemplify crack number one:

The other day I was waiting in line to check out of a store. Several people ahead of me, a man was growing heated and yelling at the check-out clerk (Don’t worry, the clerk was more than holding his own).

Please imagine this scene: A very angry, six foot tall man with tattoos. He is yelling and pounding one fist on the counter while in his other hand he holds… a leash attached to a teensy-tiny Shih Tzu with a bow on its head.

Yup, everywhere you turn you head in Tel Aviv you are faced with the inexplicable sight of big, burly, and often gun-toting men walking rodent sized dogs. Plus, it’s not untypical that these dogs should sport itsy-bitsy clothes and/or hair-accessories. Tough macho man, tiny dog, this is a common occurrence.

Honestly, this is a puzzling sight. I saw a post office employee doting on a Miniature Poodle in a restaurant. This is the very same post office employee who issued me an utterly crushing public defeat last week when I attempted to track down a package that was not delivered to me (for reasons that still remain mysterious and obscure).

I have to respect this man; he was tough and very good at being very bad at his job. It must have taken dedication to reach that level of unhelpfulness. To begin our engagement, he completely threw off any attempt at Israeli-style forcefulness on my part with his use of an openly hostile tone of voice. I had only prepared for thinly veiled hostility and a light skirmish. This encounter was clearly escalating to a full-scale war, but I continued on and attempted to match him with toughness.

His next move was an inspired display of cold indifference: No, he didn’t know if the package would be delivered, or where it was now or why it hadn’t been delivered, and no, he did not deign to help me locate it. At this point, I battled on in a raised voice asking for supervisors et cetera, but he had already smelled blood and went in for the kill.

His ending was beautiful, even I have to admit it. He disdainfully suggested that I was wasting his time and that it wasn’t his job (as an employee of the post office) to know anything about where my package was. While I was reeling from the shock of this statement, he delivered his death blow and it was final; An outright refusal to continue the conversation in English, followed by taking a phone call in Hebrew.

Done. Total Score Since Arrival: *Tough Israelis: 134,309,324 points *Lauren: 3.5 points

Yet this man, this tough Israeli who had been five seconds away from leaving me in tears, this was the very same man I saw letting his Miniature Poodle lick ice-cream out of his bowl in a public restaurant.

This love of Paris Hilton style dogs by the toughest and rudest Israelis both baffles me and endears me. The girly Miniature Poodle seems so incongruous in contrast to the antagonistic post office employee- the same with the man who caused the scene in line while holding the leash of his bow wearing Shih Tzu.

Yet, I wonder, if an ugly, rat-like dog can soften the heart of a tough Israeli, could it be that maybe they aren’t that tough after all? If an ugly dog (and I mean ugly) can win their kindness, why can’t I?

Lately, as temperatures have dropped, I’ve noticed a second crack in the badass, tough Israeli exterior.

Recently, the temperature dipped out of the 70’s in which its been lingering for the past month or so. Overnight, a change occurred. The next morning while waiting for a bus to work, I see brawny Israeli men wrapped up in downy, puffy winter coats worthy of ice-fishing wear in order to ward off the harsh and frigid weather of…57 degrees.

The bus arrives. The girl who just yesterday had nearly knocked me down in order to board the bus in front of me lags behind this morning. I turn back and steal a glance, wondering if she’s just winding up for a strong burst past/through me. But yesterday morning’s ferocity doesn’t look like she’s preparing for the mighty shove ahead of me. In fact, she is shivering and rummaging through her bag. I relax my muscles that had been clenched in preparation for impact.

She pulls out a woolen hat and I board the bus without incident. This girl who hit me like a linebacker yesterday is shaking like a wet dog with cold. She doesn’t look that scary or tough today. I nearly giggle out loud. I ask her (in very butchered Hebrew) if she wants to switch seats with me to be by a heat vent.

As I went through my day, I noticed that even the toughest Israelis I know were thrown off by the “cold spell”. The next morning, the linebacker girl is clutching a cup of coffee that she hands to me at the bus stop. She tells me she is a barista and I should come to her coffee shop. Then she smiles at me as she roughly shoves past me into the bus the second it arrives. Progress?

Cold and ugly dogs. Makes me wonder… at my next battle with the post office, should I try and arrange to have the air-conditioner cranked up and come bearing a gift of a dog sweater?


December in Tel Aviv

January 2, 2011

It is unseasonably warm, even for this area of the world. On Christmas Day it was in the upper 70’s. I took a slow and ambling walk with my roommate Laura to the Port.

It is hard to miss a white winter when you are staring at the blue waves of the Mediterranean Sea beating on a beach. Particularly hard when the warmth of the sun is so amiable and in so stark a contrast to the ongoing frigid Wisconsin winter at home.

After the port, Laura and I drifted alongside the banks of the Hayarkon River. Families were lying on blankets and the grass was full of life. Adults were reading and playing with dogs and small children. Kids flew kites and kicked balls with fathers and aunties and cousins.

Tel Aviv in December is a welcome relief.

I was not haunted by a never-ending playlist of commercials urging parents to show their children love through gifts. I was spared the mania of people who shop the day after thanksgiving (how does the irony escape them?) and then spend the next month in a crazed consumer-centric ecstasy brought on by malls and ugly sweaters.

Indeed, December in Tel Aviv is wonderful.

Me Talk Pretty One Day: Tales of Horror from Ulpan

October 16, 2010

Ulpan? Oy Vey! Luckily, I grew up in a family that forced me at a young age to learn how to laugh at myself!

I’ve endured years of what my mom calls ‘good-natured teasing’ and what my dad more succinctly calls ‘character building’. What does this really mean? It means that my parents have long seized upon my many misadventures and mishaps for comedic enjoyment by REPEATEDLY recounting the tales to each other, their friends, extended family…co-workers…neighbors…even their meat purveyor at the Farmer’s Market.

Happily, as a result of this I have developed a very high tolerance for shame. And it has paid off! Without this high shame tolerance, my experience with Ulan would have undoubtedly left me rocking in a corner somewhere muttering to myself.

Ulpan is an intensive Hebrew language school, and it’s the real deal. It’s actually used by the Israeli government to help new immigrants to the country learn the language and adapt to the culture. On the Career Israel program I’m participating in, we had Ulpan Sunday through Thursday, 9:30 a.m. until 2:30 p.m. for a solid month before we began our internships.

In the first week, we took a placement exam that would determine which of seven levels of Hebrew class we would be placed in. How can I paint this pretty picture… Imagine being handed a test with two pages of squiggles with question marks and fill-in-the-blanks ( which you assume should be filled in with the appropriate squiggles) and then one page on which to write an essay (in the mysterious squiggle language) based on a topic paragraph written in the same indecipherable squiggles.

Needless to say, I handed this exam in completely blank. And ok, fine! I even had to guess which squiggle to write my name by!

But this is no surprise. I come from a secular family. I went to public school, not a Hebrew day school. When all the other kids in my program were learning their Alef-Bet (ABC’S), my dad was teaching me to curse in Yiddish and leading discussions on the finer points of what constitutes the perfect bagel.

I was placed in the lowest level, Alef One. At the start of Ulpan, I was very optimistic and excited about learning Hebrew. However, I quickly discovered on our first day of class that even the lowest level class was miles… no leagues, above my head.

This class was designed for those who gently dozed their way though Hebrew in Sunday school growing up, not for people like me who on Sundays slept late, ate bagels and lox and then cheered for the Green Bay Packers! Everyone except one kid in my class already knew Hebrew letters in both script and print form (That’s right other bad Jews and my Goyem, there are TWO completely different ways to write each letter in Hebrew!). So the teacher spent only one day going over the letters before expecting us to be able to read and comprehend her lesson notes on the board (in Hebrew) and our lesson book (in Hebrew).

Usually words and letters are my friend. As my friends know, I love to write and read, so the struggle with literacy in Hebrew was particularly frustrating and my self-esteem took a bit of a beating. The teacher began to skip over me when we went over the answers to the squiggles in our lesson book. I stared uncomprehendingly at the squiggles on the board and attempted to copy down the lessons phonetically.

Thank goodness for that shame tolerance, because seriously, I really made a fool of myself in that class! Five hours a day of being the clearly identifiable dumbest person in the room. So long cockiness or any lingering self-delusions of grandeur that I may have! It was like David Sedaris in his book ‘Me Talk Pretty One Day’. Except suddenly I was the one living in a foreign land, able to clutch all of my vocabulary (written on flashcards) in one hand and absurdly over my head in a foreign language class

The good news is that I am done with my daily dose of public shame and began my internship this week. The even better news is that I’m not giving up on learning to read and write Hebrew…just the public humiliation! I will be doing private tutoring with myUlpan teacher at a pace and level much more suited to me. This time we can begin with the Alef Bet, and hopefully in a while I’ll be able to drop you lovely readers of mine a line in Hebrew!

Tel Aviv

October 2, 2010

Am now a resident of Tel Aviv! I’m sitting at a café across the street from our apartment building. Between sips of ice-coffee and bites of Israeli salad, I notice that the music playing is Erykah Badu. This brings a smile to my face, along with the realization that this is a city that I can dig.

And it’s not just the music that is endearing the city to me (although since I’ve been here, I have heard Van Morrison, Al Green, Leonard Cohen, Sade, Thievery Corporation and Erykah Badu playing in various cafés and Laundromats around the city).  It’s the people, it’s the energy…and ok, so maybe it’s also the beach!

After Jerusalem, Tel Aviv feels like the cold shower that snaps you awake from a dreamy sleep.

Jerusalem is a city that radiates religious reverence and is ruled by tradition. Its streets are full of bearded men in black with dark hats. These life-long students of the book have grave demeanors and prodigious families. Even their eerily well-behaved children exude an air of studied self-restraint (note to self: Must never let my parents see these children. These well-disciplined kids would only serve to make my 23 year-old self look AWFUL in comparison and add fuel to my parent’s ‘Its time to be an adult’ fire.)

In a stark contrast, the streets of Tel Aviv are bursting with nose-rings and dreadlocks. Young 20-somethings rule the streets, wearing neon colored clothes and showing daring strips of skin. In fact, since sitting at this café, I have seen two well-put together cross dressers walk by, which is not surprising as I live in a gay-friendly district. And while there are many children in Tel Aviv too, these children are screaming at their parents for glida (ice-cream in Hebrew and yes, one of the few words I have mastered!) in displays of unabashed pleasure-seeking that I find refreshing after the freakishly well-behaved kids in Jerusalem.

There is a youthful energy here that I love. And I’m lucky, because our apartments are located in a bustling street in the heart of the of the city. I exit my front door and BAM, I’m in the middle of it all.

It’s a little like living on State Street home in Madison…that is, if State Street was a ten minute walk from the Mediterranean Sea, not Lake Mendota! My apartment is surrounded by cafes and restaurants and clothing boutiques.  Also, I’m a mere five-minute walk from the Shuk (the out-door market that sells everything from knock-off Tommy Hilfiger to fresh produce to Hamsa’s and post-cards to whole fish that still have eyeballs).

But perhaps best of all to me, is the fact that I am only a ten-minute walk from the Mediterranean Sea. The beach is white sand and stretches for as long as the eye can see in both directions. The water is crystal clear and seriously bathwater warm. There is a boardwalk that runs along it, and you can walk to Yaffo (the fabled biblical city) and enjoy the view of the sea and parks, restaurants and hookah bars that dot the path.

I’ve taken to going to the beach after Ulpan (Hebrew School). I lay in the sand and enjoy a book while I soak up the rays of the sun and listen to the sounds of the waves crashing on the shore…and ok, maybe I hum the lines of Atmosphere’s song ‘Sunshine’ to myself. Around 5:30 the sun sets in a blaze of colors that has not yet once failed to take my breath away.

When I walk home, no matter how hard I try to avoid it, there is sand in my bag, caked in my hair and in various crevasses in my body. Regardless of a shower, this sand will get tracked all over the apartment and make appearances in my bed. But with sunsets like this, I know I’ll be back tomorrow.

A Note to Paca

October 2, 2010

Dizengoff is a large shopping center that is two blocks away from my apartment. On Thursdays and Fridays they have an international food market in the basement. The walkways between clothes stores and book vendors become crowded with exotic smells and stands of Thai food, Indian curry, fish and chips, and as I noticed last week, ebeskeebers from Denmark!

To those not intimately acquainted with my family, my recently departed, yet still much loved Bama (grandma) was Danish. Whenever she visited she made us ebeskeebers, which are delicious golf-ball like pancakes made in highly distinctive pans.

This is a rare food that is not commonly seen, so seeing them in Israel was quite an unexpected surprise. So Paca, I just wanted to let you know that seeing ebeskeebers and the pans made me think of you and Bama. And I’ll go to the next international food market and try them and see if they are as good as Bama’s… which I doubt!

Love you Paca!


September 10, 2010


After I landed in Tel Aviv I took a taxi to Jerusalem, where I am to meet up with the fellow participants of Career Israel.

How did I first know that I was in Israel? It wasn’t the beautiful desert scenery. It wasn’t the ubiquitous Israeli breakfast salads (hummus, now a breakfast food!). It was the cab driver. Within minutes of getting in the cab he asked me my thoughts on Obama and the current political scene in the states.

This isn’t unusual. In Israel, everyone talks politics. And in a room with four Jews you can find 40 opinions. And as much as I have been looking forward to traveling in a post-Bush-The-Buffoon world, I am wary to discuss my thoughts on this in Israel.

Bush was much more unquestionable and staunch in his support for Israel than Obama.  However, even my carefully worded response evokes a passionate reply from the cab driver, who apparently has the highest of disdain for turn signals, speed limits and Obama.

But I digress. I met my fellow participants at the Rabin Youth Hostel in Jerusalem and was surprised to learn that there were over 120 participants. There are people from all over the world: England, Scotland, Lithuania, Guatemala, Hungary, Latin America, Russia, Siberia, Canada and the United States.

Our first days in Jerusalem are jam-packed with all-day scheduled activities. It feels a little bit like going on a million first dates: Hi, what’s your name? Where are you from? What did you study? Where are you interning?

But the scenery is so beautiful it’s hard to be cranky. We go on tours of the old city and see the kotel (the Western Wall), the church where Jesus was anointed and the cave where he was buried (I took pictures of this for you Jeff, my favorite catholic!).

We hear speakers about the political situation in Israel right now, and go look at walls built to protect neighborhoods and roads outside of the green line from gunfire and bombing from the West Bank. (This is very controversial, more on this later.)

We also see the security checkpoints Palestinians from the West Bank must go through.  We drive down ‘seam-lines’ roads that are all that separate Palestinian villages from Israeli villages. I realize Israeli’s and Palestinians aren’t so much squished next to each other as they are piled on top of each other.  After all, this is a country the size of New Jersey.

I go to the Israel Museum (located conveniently across the street from our hostel) and see the fabled Dead Sea Scrolls. Jerusalem is a beautiful city, but somber, full of conflict and is deeply religious.

For a secular Jew like me, this can be a little overwhelming. Everywhere there are ultra-orthodox Jews and I live in constant fear of offending them unintentionally, and as my dad says, “bringing shame down on the family.” This fear is escalated when an Ultra-Orthodox Jew spits on me in the old city and yells at me with alarming hostility. I’m assuming that it’s because my clothes were not modest enough, although shoulders, knees and breasts are covered. The situation jars me and I am happy when we leave Jerusalem for Tel Aviv, which is where I will be living the remainder of the time.

Tel Aviv is a largely secular city that I have already fallen in love with, from its beaches, to its good-looking people to the dogs and the food. But more on that to come soon! To all my friends and family at home I miss you terribly and will post more soon and with more details!

Shana Tova to all my Jews!  I will also write about my first Rosh Hashanah in Israel!

Lots of love to you all and let me know if there is anything in particular you want to hear about.

The Arrival

September 10, 2010

Have officially arrived in the Promised Land! I arrived in Tel Aviv on the 30th and, I am happy to report, with all of my luggage and no ugly or invasive scenes with Israeli security at the airport. This is a huge relief.  Those of you who remember the ordeal I went through with El Al security last time I flew to Israel know what I’m talking about. Let’s just say that they broke me down to tears faster than anything or anyone in my life ever has!

In the days leading up to my flight, I wasn’t doing any rain-dances. But I was doing my very best please-don’t-make-me-sit-by-a-screaming-infant-dance. Apparently I should have been more specific.

On my flight from Philly to Tel Aviv I was excited to see there were three empty seats in my aisle. Almost everyone was on the plane when a modern-orthodox girl sat down in one of the seats next to me. This would have been uneventful, had her increasingly panicked breathing not necessitated some sort of response from me.

“Are you ok?” I say kindly but hoping it will shame her in to calming down a bit.

“I just hate taking off and landing,” replies the girl. “ It makes me nauseous. ”At this point it’s hard not to notice the various shades of color her face is going through.

“You’ll be fine, I’m sure. Just close your eyes and breathe deeply” I respond in an authoritative voice, as I attempt to scoot any extra centimeters away from her that the cramped coach seat will allow.

The girl is rapidly searching through the seat pocket in front of her. “How come there’s no vomit bag in here, do you have one?”

At this point everyone is on the plane and I’m thinking it can’t get much worse. I’m already planning my exodus to the empty seat on the other side of our row further away from pukey-orthodox girl when I notice two more people making their way down the aisle clutching….wait for it….. a squirming toddler.

I tell myself that there are three of them and that there is no way they could sit in the two remaining seats next to me. But sure enough they plomp down next to me with the toddler in the mother’s lap. The toddler instantly slides off her mom’s lap and begins to establish her space in the legroom in front of her mom’s seat. It takes not thirty seconds before she expands her perimeter into my leg room. (I predict this toddler has a future as an Israeli outpost settler in the disputed territories.)

Orthodox girl jumps up. As our row is the one right next to the bathroom, I have the distinct pleasure of listening to her hurl in the bathroom as the toddler puts my iPod touch in her mouth and commences to scream at increasingly high and shrill volumes if I attempt to re-claim it. Her mother smiles serenely at me as she puts her feet on her husband’s lap under a blanket and commences to cuddle and loudly kiss him.

Lift off. Bring on Palestinians and peace talks. I can handle all of those better than I can handle this flight!

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