by: Ilse Strauss, News Bureau Chief
“What are the Israelis like?”
It’s a question I get asked often. Friends and family who have never visited Israel are naturally a bit curious about the people who call the Promised Land home. It’s a difficult question to answer though. How do you summarize an infinitely diverse melting pot of a nation with some 9.5 million inhabitants—many who have come home after generations in America, Africa, Australia and everywhere else in between, carrying bits of the culture of the lands of their exile with them?
Still, it’s not entirely impossible. There are a number of unique traits that many Israelis share, cutting across the population to make for a distinctively spunky, delightful nation unlike any other. So allow me to introduce you to a few Israelis—and a few typical Israeli traits—for a glimpse of what the Israelis are like.
I was having coffee with an Israeli friend one day, when she suddenly paused mid-sentence, studied me through narrowed eyes and then blurted, “I don’t like your hair like that. It makes your face look fat.”
Direct. Straightforward. Brutally honest. Call it what you will. Israelis are known for candidly voicing an uncut version of their thoughts and feelings. They tell it like it is—sometimes to the point of appearing blunt—without sugarcoating their opinion with socially acceptable niceties or a veneer of pleasantries.
It can sting, sure, but here’s the thing. You never have to wonder where you stand with an Israeli. There’s no hypocrisy, no pretense and no insincerity; just the simple, unfiltered truth as they see it.
Perhaps more importantly though. The typical Israeli directness is not mean-spirited. It comes from a place of love. The population of Israel functions more like an extended family than mere countrymen or women sharing a geographical location. And family protects family, defends family and above all, loves one another enough to tell the unvarnished truth—even if it stings.
I once helped an elderly lady lug her groceries up the stairs to her apartment. After depositing the bags in her kitchen, she snuck a peak at my left hand and inquired, “Are you married?”
Yes, Israelis are inquisitive—some would even say nosy. No detail of your life is off limits, including the ones you consider private. Everyone from the cashier at the corner shop to the grandmother next to you on the bus to the guy selling falafel feels perfectly at ease asking—sometimes within the first few minutes of striking up a conversation—if you’re married (and if not, why?), how many children you have (and if none, why?) or who you voted for in the election.
The distinctive Israeli inquisitiveness also extends to the everyday, mundane parts of your life. Only in Israel will a fellow shopper weigh in on your choice of tomatoes; will a stranger on the sidewalk reprimand you for your child’s lack of headgear in such hot weather; or will a waiter instruct you to rethink the order you just placed.
Hear me out though. Israelis don’t pry—and weigh—into one another’s affairs to satisfy their curiosity. All of Israel functions as an extended family, remember? And the job of a family is to get involved in each other’s business so that they can help one another out. If you’re single, the grandmother on the bus has a grandson who’d be perfect for you. The stranger on the sidewalk recognizes a new mom unaccustomed to the Middle Eastern heat. The waiter knows that the dish you just ordered is terrible. And as part of the family, they have to intervene so that they can help you out.
Then there was the time I sat down for dinner with an Israeli friend and his parents. During the first few bites of the meal, the rapid-fire Hebrew conversation—which I’d lost track of almost immediately—descended into a full-blown fight. As father, mother and son traded heated arguments, I excused myself to wait out the quarrel in the garden.
My friend followed moments later, curious as to why I had walked out mid-meal. I explained that I wanted to give them privacy during their fiery family feud. His jaw dropped.
“I was telling them what I did today,” he exclaimed.
Ah, yes. Israelis live unashamedly out loud. This trait applies to everything from everyday conversations between individuals who feel no animosity toward one another sounding like shouting matches to breaking into spontaneous song in the dead of night in a residential area where everyone else is sleeping.
The reason behind this trait remains a mystery. Perhaps Israelis have simply learned to live to the utmost, with every bit of heart, heat and passion—and, of course, with the volume turned up all the way.
I could go on. I could tell you about Israelis’ respect for the elderly, how everyone under the age of 50 leaps from their seats when an older person gets on the bus. I could share about their aversion to forming an orderly line, turning every queuing situation into a tense, unspoken battle to reach the front first. And I could touch on the innate sense of trust that prompts them to deposit their baby in the embrace of a perfect stranger in a coffee shop while they pop to the bathroom. I’d rather leave you with this final example though.
I once shared a bus seat with a burly soldier scrolling through the newsfeed on his phone of Iran unleashing a barrage of rockets on Israel. As he caught me watching him, he motioned to the pictures of fiery explosions lighting up the night sky and offered reassuringly, “Don’t be afraid. He who watches over us doesn’t slumber or sleep.”
Of course, not everyone in Israel is religious, but even in the most secular of Israelis lingers the echoes of faith woven into their DNA. These are the sons and daughters of Abraham, Esther, Gideon and Ezra. These are the offspring of the people God calls a “special treasure” (Deut. 14:2). Is it any wonder then that the Israelis are a nation unlike any other?
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