Just Above Sunset
July 16, 2006 - Different Folks, Different Strokes

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Our Man in Tel-Aviv is Sylvain Ubersfeld. This week he tells us about the day-to-day adjustments one makes, or doesn't make, when living in Israel, in detail, with examples. And he adds this - 'I am traveling to the Golan area close to the Syrian and Lebanese borders in preparation of my next essay, with pictures, for next week.' Given the situation there at the moment, we wish him well. He should live and be happy, as they say. Next week's column should be interesting, to say the least. This week's is fascinating.

Discovering Israeli contrast and the "Israeli way" is not for the weak.  It is both a fascinating and a very taxing experience.  Having traveled and worked in over fifty nations in the course of my professional life, I had assumed that I was ready to face life in this "westernized" country in the Middle East.  To no avail.  I have known both peace and wa times in my previous assignments, all of them paved with incredible experiences ranging from an encounter with dictator Idi Amin Dada to civil war in Angola, from handling Haj (1) passenger flights through the Middle East to delivering racing horses or racing cars in Christchurch (New Zealand).  I have slept in tents and luxury suites in international hotels, I have traveled the world around many times and assumed that I could face each and every situation without feeling the least frustrated anymore.


I was dead wrong as this land is really something else and everyday I discover how much I still need to learn, and how much effort I must put inyo my daily endeavor to avoid frustrations which could end up being dangerous to my mental health.


Several factors make this country absolutely unique and difficult to understand, even for the "insider" which I pretend to be.  In an effort to better grasp the difficulties of so many contrasts and opposits, I recently attempted to  draw up a list of "I love versus I hate" - and found out that the "love" column was as long as the "I hate" part, which would certainly be acceptable for some far-eastern wise man based on the principle of Yin and Yang, but for someone like me, educated in a Jewish not to say Judaist background, this came as a deception and, shame on me, I even think with regret that I have developed with time a very critical approach to the beloved country of my ancestors.  It is often said that with age, people have difficulties adjusting. Could it be that I am becoming an intolerant idiot? (A)


Imagine yourself in a land where suddenly your brain will need to function in a different fashion because of the language and the signs everywhere.  Try to think and drive from right to left, find on which side you should queue up (whenever there is a queue, which is very rare since people here do not queue-up but congregate in the most undisciplined fashion).


In my office, files need to be opened in a different way reflecting the local right to left handling of documents and I often feel a physical violation of my brain when attempting to follow the local custom of perforating the right side of a document before inserting it for conservation.  Used to the western concept of customer service in return for a reasonable fee, I need to face on a daily basis the opposite concept of no customer service in return for a lot of money.  As a rule of the thumb, customers should NEVER get in touch with ANY customer service by telephone . Should they dare doing it, they will never forget their experience.  After wasting precious time trying to deal with an automated switchboard in English sending you back to an Hebrew menu the luckiest individual will finally get to speak with an attendant which will place him on hold while he or she will first finish a private conversation on a mobile phone. If one is lucky enough, one will get no help at all. If one is unlucky, one will simply hear the phone being slammed off and will have to call the customer service number again, again and AGAIN!  


Not long ago, as I enquired about the possibility of cleaning the top floor terrace of my apartment, I made contact with a cleaning company and discussed the price needed to perform a relatively simple task.  Upon agreement, a team of "highly skilled professionals" showed up on location.  Highly qualified?  One man and two of his sons in short denims and rubber boots arrived in the apartment and started off the cleaning job by explaining to me that they had brought with them an electrical cleaning machine which justified doubling up the price, unless I was ready to pay just a bit more than the price we agreed upon provided that it would be paid VAT excluded (2).  The cleaning was far below mediocre and the "Baal Ha-Beit" (3) probably laughed all the way to the bank after I told him, once the mediocre clean-up was done, not to set foot again in my apartment, in my street , nor in the entire South Tel-Aviv area.  Needless to say, I felt such an idiot for getting caught - that I had accepted the transaction, therefore opening the door for comments and laughter from my office colleagues who told me that I was not "Israeli enough" and should have never accepted having my terrace cleaned for more than what was agreed upon by telephone - but this was a good lesson as it takes two to tango and, in that case, a crook and an idiot like me.


Suspecting that I am a foreigner, taxi drivers appears to have passed this information to each other as every time I flag a Tel-Aviv cabbie  He always offers an off-meter ride for a price which would buy me a full-fledged dinner in any good restaurant in Paris, Amsterdam or Rome, and as an idiot and a low-level lazy foreigner, I always swear that I will write them up with the Ministry of Tourism… which of course I never do . Why do I use taxis in anyway?  Simply because the Municipality of Tel-Aviv, chronically short of money, is chasing drivers of my type who have a tendency to park anywhere in the hope that a traffic ticket will be cheaper than parking.  As a result, quite a few drivers end up their day picking up their car at the municipal pond where it has been hauled while the owner was either at the beach drinking beer or simply at the local fast food picking up a shawarmah  sandwich after parking their car on a red and white spot.


Although I have been brought up by my dear mother in the respect and tolerance of all religious differences, from Animists to Antoinists, from Jehovah's witnesses to Baptist Christians, I Must admit that I do not behave like my mother would have wished when it come to religious extremist of all kind, as bearded religious men, whether in Riyadh, New York, Jerusalem or Paris, are often engrossed in religious excesses in the holy name of God - who does not necessarily approve the courses of action taken in His name, but waits until the final day of Judgment to settle the accounts.  Beards, once a symbol of tolerance and wisdom, have turned to be a telltale sign of obscurantism and segregation from which Israel is not exempt. There are streets in Jerusalem or in other "religious locations," where the concept of "Sheiner Yid " (4) is not a vague notion.  Not long ago, a reputable newspaper reported that the members of some Orthodox group had united to lobby against one less Orthodox family who planned to settle in an Orthodox area, but were deemed not Kosher enough to be entitled to bring their "settling project" to term - they clearly had to go, somewhere else where the level of Kashrut and tolerance was a bit more lenient and people's minds a little bit more open. 


Religion bears a lot of weight in the daily life and in the unfolding of political events.  Some ultra Orthodox are still not recognizing the state of Israel and call it a "placebo country," as in their own view the real Israel will only be when Maschiach (5) will arrive.  Because no one really knows when this event will take place, the Israeli government is guaranteed to have to deal with the "Haredi " (6)  community for several more years.  Trying to convince myself that there was no relationship possible between my own life and the fact that God had elected to hover above Israel since the biblical times until now, I have always refused to pick up openly religious human brothers when I would see them hitchhiking along the road.  A few months ago, as I approached a crossroad, a black-and-white bearded man flagged me in the hope that I would pick him up and take him to his destination.  While keeping my right hand on the steering wheel, I used my left hand out of the window to give him the finger and drove off just to realize about tenty-five miles later that I was not on the right track. There is not one doubt in my mind that "Ha Shem" (7) had led me the wrong way on purpose as a punishment for my intolerance to religious member of Israeli society.


Regularly, when the sun goes down and I allow myself to have a drink while watching the ocean, and I often ask myself what did I really expect to find in Israel.  Superheroes ?  Saints of all kinds, Allah and Jehovah walking hand in hand on their way to God the father for a game of damka (8)?  If it was so, I should have stayed home.   Instead I came to spend time with cultural differences, different folks and different strokes and that is really what this country is about, Be Ezrat Ha Shem ( 9)





(1) Haj, the traditional pilgrimage to Meccah , one of the 5 pillars of Islam.


(2) When dealing with many small business owners, it is not rare to pay "under the table" cash, in return for a "net price" versus a "VAT price."  The customer saves 16.5 % and the crook does not show any "accountable" transactions in his books.


(3) A Baal Ha Beit - literally the owner of the house - can be the landlord or owner of an apartment and the owner of a business of any kind. I n Hebrew the world Baal also means a husband, the owner of a woman, in other words. (!)


(4) Sheiner Yid.  A Yiddish expression suggesting an above average approach to observance of an Orthodox way of life . This term also encompasses the notion of being a "tzaddik" - a righteous one.  It is often used also in mockery or to tease.  When meeting my Jewish friends for the first time, my father use to ask them in Yiddish - "Bist du ein Sheiner Yid ?" (Are you a an above average Jew?)  Yiddish is a disappearing language but carries had a lot of weight in the culture of eastern European Jews.


(5) Maschiach = Messiah, never seen but still waiting for him until when?  Only God knows!  No doubt that the day when Maschiach will arrive, Israel will  undergo many changes… and I am not convinced that it will be for the better!


(6) Haredi.  A specific ultra-Orthodox community, often engrossed in its own traditions and refusing to acknowledge the existence of the state of Israel.  Haredi folks wear specific outfits identifying them to the rest of the Israelis.


(7) One of the allowable ways to address God


(8) A game similar to backgammon, played all over Israel


(9) Be Ezrat Ha Shem: with the help of God






I positively hate: 

  • People entering the elevator before everyone has a chance to get out first
  • Beachgoers who bury soiled diapers in the sand
  • Loud techno music played at the beach by the rude owner of the small restaurant in order to attract more customers and sell more beer
  • The fact that prices for tourists are officially different than prices for Israeli, a kind of "wallet" selection which should not exist, especially in Israel where everyone is supposed to be equal
  • The lack of attention to details which plague the Israeli society
  • The unreliability of Israeli workers who claim that they will come to perform a task at 09h00 on Monday and call you on Tuesday night to advise that they will be late


I positively love: 

  • The colors of the sky at dawn and when sun sets
  • The taste of warm cashew nuts
  • The landscapes of the Golan area
  • The old city of Jerusalem
  • Sampling dried apricots or figs in supermarkets
  • The taste of Kebab cooked on a BBQ
  • Beating the morning traffic by getting up when the sun (and everyone else) are still asleep!

Copyright 2006 - Sylvain Ubersfeld

Copyright 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006 - Alan M. Pavlik

The inclusion of any text from others is quotation for the purpose of illustration and commentary, as permitted by the fair use doctrine of U.S. copyright law.  See the Legal Notice Regarding Fair Use for the relevant citation.
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