I’ve been trying for the past few days to think of a way to describe Israeli culture to you. It’s been hard, in no small part because I have trouble “stepping out” of my life here – a life I’ve lived many times – and describing it from an outsider’s perspective. But I’m going to try, in bullet point form. Hopefully this will give you a taste of the life I’m living right now:
1. The bluntness and kindness of strangers. My roommate and I have been talking over the interactions we have with strangers, primarily vendors working in the neighborhood market. On the one hand, in true Israeli form, everyone is blunt. “Oh, it’s your birthday? How old are you?” (A question you’d never hear in the USA). “What are you doing here? Why?” The directness of people’s questions, and statements, never fails to surprise me.
On the other hand, it’s impossible not to notice how kind everyone is here. I’ve mentioned Middle Eastern hospitality more than once on this blog – it is truly a recurring theme in my life here. Every question I ask is met with an answer and often an invitation for coffee or tea, or more questions, or help…every person I know asks if I have someplace to go for the חגים, the Jewish High Holidays coming up in a few weeks. When people discover my research topic, (assuming their politics align with mine), I receive names and numbers and emails of someone they know who works in this field and can help. Not a day goes by when I don’t feel grateful to all the people I know, and the ones I’ve just met, who are instinctively so willing to do whatever they can to make my time here easier, productive, and interesting.
2. Relative sizes and distance. I spent this weekend with family friends – good friends of my mom, their children, and their grandchildren (10 of them! 8 under the age of 6!). These friends and their children all happen to live on the same moshav, a small settlement about 50km (30 miles) from Tel Aviv. At some point during the weekend something was said about a cousin who lived in Tel Aviv, rather than on this moshav, and how far away he was. I guess it’s all relative. Now that we’re back in New York (well, when we get back to the USA), Neil and I will live about 20 miles from my parents – and we feel like it is very close! (In a good way, of course).
On a similar note, I was speaking with one member of the family and she was telling me her work schedule for the week – Sunday and Monday off (Sunday is a work day here), Tuesday meetings, and Wednesday in Turkey for a meeting. As in, the country. For a single meeting. I keep forgetting that most of Europe is about a 3 hour flight from here – Turkey for a single meeting really isn’t that unusual. Anyway, in case it wasn’t obvious, that comment was the source for the title of this post.
3. Produce and street food. And fast food. I’ve been basking in the deliciousness of Israeli produce, cheeses, and food in general. There is a vegetable market about 5 minutes from my apartment where I can get several tomatoes, a few cucumbers, carrots, a head of broccoli, and maybe some plums and/or peaches for under 10 shekels (Israeli currency) – about $2.50. It really puts produce in the USA – even organic, locally grown produce, which I try to find where I can – to shame. Almost everything is grown here, in Israel, the whole of which is only about 1000km (~600 miles) from its northern to its southern tip. OK, so maybe the produce travels a bit more than it does to the Bloomington farmer’s market – but local Indiana produce can’t hold a finger to this stuff in terms of taste and color – and price!
Israeli street food is a whole other matter. I mentioned burekas in a previous post (and I’ve eaten some by this point), and you all probably are aware of falafel and shwarma…but the possibilities here are endless! Jews from all over the world brought their cuisine to this country and it shows up on street corners – everything from Central Asian to Iraqi to Persian and Moroccan cuisine. Not to mention the more recent addition of pizza shops, ice cream shops, and of course the ubiquitous coffee shops in this country…
Much of the street food is what I consider “fast food” – something to eat when I don’t have time for or interest in cooking, cheap, filling, and relatively unhealthy (although healthier for sure than most of what constitutes fast food in the United States). Places like McDonald’s, on the other hand, are reserved the status of “a place to go hang out” by teenagers and families alike. For example, the same woman who told me she was heading to Turkey for a single meeting was talking about taking her grandchildren to McDonald’s as an activity. It is an interesting phenomenon and one I don’t quite understand – I mean, the food here is so good and varied, why McDonald’s? (By the way, for those of you who are interested, Starbucks tried to open a few stores here, maybe 5 or 6 years ago, and totally failed – there are too many local chains, way, way too many local chains, for Starbucks to have succeeded).
And…that’s it for now on cultural observations – more to come in the coming months. I can also say at this point that my research is starting to get off the ground. For example, today I received a list of over 600 (!) people to contact as potential interviewees. Unfortunately I won’t be able to share much of my research here because of confidentiality issues (I don’t think trees receive the same ethical protection as people!), but I will post bits and pieces as I can. Mostly I am glad that things are starting to move forward, even if it is clear already that they will not proceed as I planned way back in the day when I was sitting in Indiana only thinking about Israel! The best laid plans and all that…