Living in a foreign country for 6 months is something I am fortunate enough to have done more than once.  I studied abroad in Nice, France two years ago; the program was small, the town was small, and I often found myself wishing I had instead moved to Paris, where my best friend was studying.  Looking back on my taste of la vie francaise I realize where I went wrong; I stopped noticing the little things.  I didn’t spend enough afternoons sipping cappucinoes at the beach-side cafes, I stopped searching for quiet streets to walk through, and I didn’t eat enough wheels of Camembert and Brie (okay, that’s probably a lie).

My life in Israel is, among other things, another chance to find that which I missed in France.  Sometimes it is difficult to notice the little things in Tel Aviv; it’s a huge, dirty, crowded, loud city.  However, I’m determined to pay attention and although it makes me feel like a cheesy, over-dramatic tourist, lately I’ve been stopping to let things sink in.

During my parents’ visit to Israel last week, I took them to a small and inexpensive restaurant, Odelia’s, down the street from my apartment.  The place literally defines no-frills food, although most Israeli cuisine would fit into this category.  The menu is small and the only reason the prices vary is because the items are offered in three different sizes; but incredibly enough, the most expensive dish is around 10 USD.  In my opinion, Odelia’s has the best hummus, and everything tastes exactly as it would if it was served up by a grandmother in a babushka.  Lately, they’ve been offering tea or coffee on the house.  Neither of these are standard; the tea is simply a cup of hot water filled with fresh mint leaves and the coffee is made from a thick and grainy sand that sits at the bottom of the cup.  At the end of my meals at Odelia’s, I feel absolutely fine handing over 10USD for a bowl of fresh hummus, vegetable soup, and warm pita.  The best part? They blast 90’s pop songs from the speakers.

Last night I went to the house party of a friend of a friend’s who had just been released from the army.  All of the guys there had been friends since high school, but as is common in the army, they had been separated for 3 years in different army units.  The party was in the backyard of the house where a couple of light-bulbs hung from tree trunks and there was a string of tattered and dirty Israeli flags around the chairs.  I’m not saying that it’s uncommon that a group of friends would get together to celebrate such an event in the States.  But watching them grill meat together in the backyard of a run-down house and talk about their upcoming two-month trip to Thailand made me envious of their contentment.  There’s no doubt that life is hard in Israel, but everyone seems to be enjoying themselves, no matter how little they have.

Today I spent my time picnicking at Park HaYarkon.  Because it was Saturday, the park was filled with families.  By sunset, several of them had set up picnic tables with dinner and were beginning to eat by the light of a candle.  I watched several fathers with their children; one was teaching his son to ride a bike and was jogging alongside and letting go of him every few seconds.  Another was playing basketball with his son.  Near the end of the park I came across a father who was lying in the grass with one of his daughters and singing; his other daughter was next to them in a wheelchair and was clapping and laughing along with the melody.  All of this was taking place around the Yarkon River which is  extremely unsafe and polluted; literally, if you were to swim in the Yarkon you would end up in a hospital.

What I’m trying to say is that Israel is a country facing an array of serious problems and conflict, but everyone around me seems to be finding happiness in the little things in life; or maybe I’m just getting better at noticing them the second time around?

Park HaYarkon

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Peoples’ Protest

November 2, 2010

Working in Israel is a learning experience. Meetings are interrupted by cell phone conversations with nonchalance. As frustrating as this can seem at times, it’s simply a cultural difference.

In Israel there exists a level of informality in both everyday life and at work. In fact, following your meal at most restaurants, the waiter is likely to place toothpicks on the table. As my Mom pointed out at her first meal in Tel Aviv, “Only in Israel would it be okay to pick at your teeth at a nice restaurant!” Even as I write this I’m sitting in a pair of jeans at my desk, snacking on carrot slices and humus. This informality is pervasive in everyday Israeli life, and in my opinion is at the root of the problem of inpunctuality; or more precisely, “Israeli time.” Things here tend to start at least fifteen minutes after their scheduled commencement. Weddings are known to begin at least an hour after the time on the invitation. How does one know to show up at 5:45pm for a 5pm ceremony? These are the questions I ask myself everyday.

Working at a university in Israel is one of the best ways to learn about the culture because I am interacting with both my peers and superiors and thus can gauge the overall feelings on campus about culture and politics. The latest issue in the news and on campus relates to the stipends for Yeshiva students, a law that is currently under evaluation by the Prime Minister. The Yeshiva student law is a perfect example of the rare clash between traditional and modern life and religious and secular values in Israel.

One would assume that a country for and by Jews would be relatively supportive of its religious population. However, this population, theYeshiva students, are exempt not only from working (instead they study the Torah) but more importantly from participating in the necessary and unifying experience of every other Israeli citizen: service in the Israeli Defense Forces. Men are required by the country to give at least three years to the IDF and women are required to give two. For an entire population of the country to disqualify themselves from the service that exists for their protection is obviously a segregating factor.

After hearing about this dichotomy, it came as no surprise to me that the students at Tel Aviv University were planning on protesting the law. Israel has the highest number of academic degrees in the world; its students work hard after the army to save up money and continue to work at restaurants and bars throughout the school year to put themselves through college. It is surprising that a country that places such a focus upon education is essentially ignoring the financial needs of its students in order to give millions to support a population that will never serve in the defence forces or hold a job. In addition, this population gets pregnant early and often.

Last evening there was a protest in Jerusalem that drew over 5,000 students, something that rarely occurs in the United States. Israelis may be laid back and informal, but I guess they know when it’s important to get serious.

 

Protest at Tel Aviv University, November 11th, 2010

http://www.ynetnews.com/articlesnc/0,7340,L-3983222,00.html