Israelis are by-and-large “reserved.” In St Louis, people usually wave, say hello, and respond with a smile. Some Israelis stare a bit -- I sometimes feel I am being scrutinized by El Al’s security; most others look down or away, avoiding any semblance of eye contact. When I pass someone walking to the Yeshivah, even a boker tov is, at best, “reservedly” reciprocated. At the shul where I have davened -- it was only after 20-25 times at shacharit, minchah, and arvit -- did anyone in the small group come over to greet this “stranger,” and awhile after that that I was offered an aliyah. The few that have belatedly come over are always Americans. At services on the other side of Efrat, it was marginally better; Americans came to “make my acquaintance.” Few Israelis did.
After Shabbat last week on the way out of Elkanah, I picked up a tremp (hitchhiker). She turned out to be an American olah and I was able to drop her off in Yerushalayim. We had a lot in common in that she studied Talmud seriously, and is an observant woman who is dedicated to women’s participation within halachah. But when speaking about Israelis, although she found them more personal in some instances, she also called them “rude.” I shared my more tempered characterization. My point is we are in the same ballpark.
Is this so, and if so, why is this so?
Before I dig a little deeper, we need to acknowledge that there are palpable differences in cultures, even within a similar general culture. I have periodically shared my perception of the most simple, ongoing, and noticeable difference between life in the east coast in contrast to life in St Louis: Driving. In the east (and elsewhere), drivers accelerate through red traffic lights; St Louisans stop for yellow/amber lights! In the east, speeding is the norm; many St Louisans drive below the speed limit! And that is not all. In New York, and even more so in Philadelphia (maybe winning the superbowl will calm them), fans are angry with their team’s performance; St Louis fans are “disappointed.” Although people are people, there are significant cultural differences.
Perhaps Israeli culture was fundamentally set by earlier generations who had to build a country from scratch. There was much work to do, most of it -- like agriculture and private and public construction of homes, buildings, and roads, was especially rough for people who were more often peddlers and tradesmen. This can create a hard edge.
The same dynamic found its way into America. New Englanders are also known for reservedness. With shorter growing seasons and longer winters, a culture formed that reflected the grind of life. By contrast, in warm climates, like the Caribbean, with fruits and vegetables aplenty, awash in water and in sunshine, an easy, carefree attitude sets in. I think back to the Beach Boys' hits of California, surfing, fun in the sun, and to the 1980’s island song “Don’t Worry, Be Happy.”
Israelis, of course, faced another cold reality -- violent conflict and war. From riots in 1929, through the 1930’s and 40’s Sho’ah, ongoing avoiding and penetrating the British immigration blockade, and the battle for survival (not a cliche here) in 1948, through the Six-Day-War, the Yom Kippur War, and terrorism, and the publicly broadcasted vicious threats of enemies, it would be unrealistic for a warm, easy, Pollyannaish culture to emerge.
Furthermore, Israelis are doers, rather than talkers. Unlike the several decades’ trend in the US to talk about feelings, Israelis largely don’t. Sure, there is an intellectual dimension here, a country filled with academics and political expression, but warm social interaction is not evident to me.
But maybe there is more to it than even that. Many Israelis have formed bonds in ways that we do not. The country is geographically small, so families and childhood friends are, at worst, within a few hours' drive. Secondly, as it used to be in America, there are the neighborhoods -- also more compact -- where the families and friends bond with each other. Then there is the army: bonding through mutual duty and defense of the country and the mishpachah, and each other. Although sometimes military drills are exercises, in Israel it is real. And of course there are other bonding opportunities, such as at work.
One piece of supportive evidence is the tremp. In Efrat, as around the country, there are many who tremp and many who pick up “strangers.” There is that feeling of safeness -- the trempers and the drivers are family. I too have picked up a few trempers.
Bonding with each other may make it more difficult for the outsider to penetrate. And although my love for the Jewish people, Israel and my Jewish life is central to me, and it is hard for me to think of myself as an outsider to my world-wide mishpachah, the reality is that I am largely outside Israeli life. So perhaps what I, and Americans who have shared similar perceptions, perceive, is a bit exaggerated; we are, at least in part, outside their inner lives. Israelis may be warmer with each other. Even many of the Americans who make aliyah may well become more reserved. They need to fit into the culture. Will it change?
In some ways America and Americans in Israel are affecting change. Israel’s prosperity is fostering changes. The NIS has gained against the dollar over the recent past, unemployment is low, and this has already lead to significant changes. Israelis travel. (More on that in another blog.) There are talk shows and opinion shows. And Israeli TV imports games shows and the like. Expression, rather than reservedness, is a big part of TV success. Will the national personality change as well?
The counter-trends are here as well. Technology also isolates us from each other; we can see the world from our computer and email, message, tweet, and twitter and hardly look up and interact human to human. Israel is no less of this technological age than are we or the Europeans. So, I would not be surprised if the reserved Israeli personality endures.