Sar-El Volunteer messages

ENJOYING THE BEST ISRAEL HAS TO OFFER: ITS PEOPLE

As most tourists do, in my previous visits to Israel, I was overwhelmed by the rich and unique historical and spiritual marvels Israel has to offer.  In Jerusalem, the entire old/new city speaks to you: its ancient walls, stone buildings, old synagogues, churches and mosques, the narrow twisting streets climbing up and down hills are imbued with history, every cobblestone has a story to tell. 
And then, in the very same old city, the tourist discovers the new, modern and vibrant Jerusalem with its plethora of cultural and artistic offerings that uplift one’s soul.

And after Jerusalem, the tourist in a couple of hours of travel steps into another world: the sophisticated and fun-loving Tel Aviv, a composite of continental European capitals and the blue skies and warm sandy beaches rivaling Spain’s Costa del Sol.  Who could ask for more?  

And still, further north, there is the dignified, elegant and ladylike city of Haifa exuding quiet charm from the heights of Mont Carmel all the way down to the quiet and clean shores of the Mediterranean.  

And in between Israel’s main cities, sprinkled like jewels, a number of vibrant smaller communities, each with its own particular charm, leaving the homebound tourist longing for more.

That was then, when I was a visitor to Israel.  And this is now—a bona fide oleh hadash, having made aliyah to Israel some six months ago.  Since then, I’ve realized that, enchanted by the physical beauty of Israel, I have failed to discover its most precious asset: the people of Israel.  Although at first impression, they do not exude the instant pleasing charm of the inhabitants of some more popular tourist destinations elsewhere, their sincerity, plain-speaking openness and genuine friendliness far outlasts the cosmetic effect of the superficiality of charm and allure.  With an Israeli, you know immediately how you stand: without flattery or rancor, he’ll let you know.  The average Israeli does not make a great diplomat—that is if you came for a diplomat.  However, if you are looking for a friend to stand by you in good times or bad, then get an Israeli to like you.  These guys seem to have created and live in a technologically highly advanced society, and yet, still cling to the old, traditional social and moral values.  Not an easy trick to pull.  As one writer in a letter to the editor of an Israeli newspaper aptly put it: “If God forbid I were to collapse on a city sidewalk anywhere in the world, I would prefer for it to happen in Israel.  Instantly, I would be surrounded by people: pedestrians, store owners rushing out of their establishments and even some of these crazy horn-tooting Israeli drivers would stop, get out of their cars and offer assistance.”  
I believe he is right.  That scenario of help given when needed would be very much in line with Israeli mentality.  In my first few weeks as an apprentice oleh hadash, I often found myself irritated by the Israeli tendency to directly ask perfect strangers questions which I thought were about private, personal and plain none-of-their-business issues.  After spending the major part of my life in Canada (I came to Canada as a young man), I’ve come to appreciate and accept the English high regard for personal privacy.  People, especially strangers or casual acquaintances, simply do not ask personal questions.  Even close friends or family members would use considerable discretion before
asking intimate questions.  Now however, after what I thought at the time to be an intrusive and irritating conversation with an elderly Israeli fellow traveler on a Tel-Aviv to Haifa train, I’m beginning to regard the entire Canadian concept of personal privacy in a somewhat different light.

This elderly Israeli fellow sat next to me and began to talk.  “Where are you going?”  he inquired.  “Haifa” I politely said, and immediately took defensive Canadian privacy measures—I pulled out a book from my satchel and began to read.  BREAKING NEWS!  It does not work in Israel.  The questions, increasingly more personal, kept coming.  First in Yiddish, and when he
considered my rusty Yiddish to be inadequate, he continued in surprisingly good English.
“Where are you from?” 
“Canada.”
“Are you here with your family?”
“No.”  
“Are you married?” 
“Yes.”
“How many children do you have?”
“None.  We have three cats.”
“So you have only cats?”  And he heavily sighed.  “And what do you do in Canada?”
“Retired.  I had a small printing shop.” 
“Yes?  My uncle in the old country was a printer.  Can you make a leiben in printing?” 
In desperation, hoping to shut him up, I tried a bit of humor.  “Only if a printer prints dollar bills,” I said.  I figured that if I get him laughing, he’ll stop talking.  No such luck.  The guy did both: he laughed and philosophically commented: “So how can you enjoy the dollars you printed if you spend the rest of your life in jail?”

I had enough.  “Look,” I said as politely as I could, “you seem to be a nice man but I do not know you.  When we get to Haifa, both of us will go our separate ways.  Why are you asking me questions which are none of your business?”  “Excuse me,” he said with a sad and hurt expression on his face.  “I have forgotten that you are new in Israel.  I’m asking questions  because you are a human being, a mensch, and I didn’t want to offend you by ignoring you as though you were a piece of luggage on the seat next to me.  What you call privacy in Canada, in Israel we call it being isolated, companionless, lonely, not connecting with your fellow man.  I’m very sorry I have angered you.”

And then we arrived in Haifa.

Ed Binder, Sar-El Volunteer and new oleh