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?