My wife contributed a post to the All Things Mom Sydney blog titled “The Religious Effect: Raising children within a Jewish Family” which I enjoyed reading (of course I’m biased but you may find it interesting in itself). She wrote about the decisions we have made to ensure that our kids grow up in a Jewish home and the balance we strike between religious practice and a degree of secularism in our lives.
Just over two years ago, we made the decision to emigrate to Israel. While it’s been a rather large adjustment in terms of culture (Israelis are a loud, pushy, obstinate, loyal, happy and friendly bunch) and language, it’s also been easy in that Israel is a Jewish state. This means that we are not in a minority anymore in terms of religion. But, while we are not in the minority anymore, there are still dozens of other religions represented by the citizens of Israel as well as many cultures our children have never been exposed to since there are people from all over the world that call Israel home, Russian, French, American, British, Australian just to name a few. So, we still make a point to explain the differences between people’s cultures and religions to our children.
I think the biggest and most important lesson we have taught and continue to teach our children is that everyone is different and that no person is above or below anyone else. That people have different beliefs and that we need to respect them regardless of religion.
As our children grow up, retaining strong links to our culture and traditions is increasingly important to me. We can’t take living in Israel for granted. Even this Jewish State has strong tugs in different directions: towards complete secularism on one hand and towards stricter religious observance on the other.
We walk somewhere between both. I’d like our kids to be exposed to more of our religious practices because I think there is a lot of wisdom to be gained from many of our practices despite their religious connotations. In addition, much of our culture stems from our traditions and losing that means losing much of what it means to be Jewish.
Where that leaves us remains a bit of a mystery to me. For the time being, we’re mostly figuring this stuff out as we go. I hope that our kids will grow up with a strong sense of pride that they are both Jews and Israelis. We have a long history and there is something special about who we are.
Ars Technica has a fascinating report about how an ancient Hebrew texts has been read for the first time in more than 1 700 years despite being almost destroyed by a fire that consumed the ancient synagogue it was discovered in:
When the En-Gedi scrolls were excavated from an ancient synagogue’s Holy Ark in the 1970s, it was a bittersweet discovery for archaeologists. Though the texts provided further evidence for an ancient Jewish community in this oasis near the Dead Sea, the scrolls had been reduced to charred lumps by fire. Even the act of moving them to a research facility caused more damage. But decades later, archaeologists have read parts of one scroll for the first time. A team of scientists in Israel and the US used a sophisticated medical scanning technique, coupled with algorithmic analysis, to “unwrap” a parchment that’s more than 1,700 years old.
Computer imaging techniques are commonly used to preserve and share readable manuscripts, but capturing writing locked away in ancient, deteriorated documents poses an entirely different challenge. This software pipeline—referred to as “virtual unwrapping”—allows textual artifacts to be read completely and noninvasively. The systematic digital analysis of the extremely fragile En-Gedi scroll (the oldest Pentateuchal scroll in Hebrew outside of the Dead Sea Scrolls) reveals the writing hidden on its untouchable, disintegrating sheets. Our approach for recovering substantial ink-based text from a damaged object results in readable columns at such high quality that serious critical textual analysis can occur. Hence, this work creates a new pathway for subsequent textual discoveries buried within the confines of damaged materials.
I am utterly fascinated by stories like this, especially when it comes to recoveries of ancient texts and artifacts in Israel. These discoveries paint a rich picture of Jewish life in Israel going back millennia.
I also love how these modern technologies can be used to reveal these ancient artifacts to the world once again. A great example of this is how the Dead Sea Scrolls have been digitised and made publicly available online through the Leon Levy Dead Sea Scrolls Digital Library.
This is one of the reasons I am a big fan of work being done by the Google Cultural Institute (which powers the Dead Sea Scrolls Digital Library). Despite the copyright concerns some copyright owners raise, Google is doing amazing work preserving our collective culture.
These sorts of stories also remind me of the debate about ephemeral digital content that Snapchat popularised. On the one hand, we produce so much content these days and much of that is only really relevant for short time periods. On the other hand, if we don’t capture even the silly things we share in some form, we could be sacrificing an historical archive, the value of which could only be appreciated in centuries to come.
Digital technologies give us the means to store perfect versions of just about everything. The question is more whether we can solve the challenges of format compatibility so that future technologies will be able to access our content?
Everything we share is a thread in the tapestry of our modern culture and small memes can have the tendency to grow into profound cultural transformations. We almost lost the En-Gedi scrolls entirely to a fire. Thankfully we didn’t and the work of these scientists has completed more of the historical tapestry of my ancestors.
Israelis can be an acquired taste but is it possible for an Israeli to be too Israeli, even for other Israelis? We have a tendency to be pushy, argumentative and circumspect about people’s motivations, especially when it comes to commerce and politics.
Even though I’m still acclimating, I sometimes encounter Israelis who are too “Israeli”, even for born Israelis who are accustomed to our culture. Last week one of my colleagues had an experience that made me laugh (and cringe a little).
She received a sales call from an Israeli vendor. The vendor was especially pushy and condescending and pitched my colleague on a variety of services she wasn’t interested in. My colleague, a born Israeli, tried for some time to explain to the vendor that she wasn’t interested in what the vendor was selling, to no avail.
The vendor kept going. At one point the vendor pointed out that my colleague was clearly ignorant of the space she was working in and didn’t appreciate what she was being offered.
Eventually the call ended and my colleague, exasperated, commented that this must be how non-Israelis perceive Israelis to be. I laughed and told her that this is pretty much the reputation Israelis have outside Israel. At least for the general public.
I was mostly amused that there are Israelis who are too Israeli, even for other Israelis!
Becoming an Israeli citizen was easy. Becoming Israeli is the hard part.
I feel like I am going through a rough patch in my relationship with Israel and my Israeli friends, neighbours, colleagues and fellow inhabitants of this little strip of hotly contested land. It has been almost a year and a half since we left Ben Gurion Airport as newly minted Olim Hadashim (“fresh meat” as my former Ulpan put it, with a smile).
When I wake up in the mornings and head out the door, I’m usually thinking about whether I’ll make the bus rather than the fact that I have woken up in our new home in Israel. It’s not to say I don’t have that thrill anymore. It’s just that it doesn’t happen as often in my typical day. The daily routine has a tendency to take over and sideline the sense of wonder that seemed like it would never subside when we first arrived.
We could communicate better
I also feel like we don’t talk much, Israel and me. More specifically, it feels like I just don’t know what to say. I literally don’t have the words and that leaves me feeling like an outsider. Sure, people still try help me (most of them anyway) but the last month or so have definitely been Very Bad Hebrew Months for me.
On top of this communication issue, routine stuff seems to take up a lot of mental and emotional bandwidth. Consider your day-to-day pressures and stresses and add a factor of partial knowledge of the language it is all expressed and handled in. It can be more than a little intimidating at times.
Thankfully, my recent staycation with my mother gave me a break from my daily routine and much needed perspective on what living in Israel means to me.
Connecting with Israeli life
On the third day of our mini-break during Chol Hamoed Pesach, we all took a trip to Jaffa and walked around the market. It was my first time there and I wasn’t sure what to expect. I was pretty pleasantly surprised. The market stretched across a few streets and felt so typically Israeli. In one section people sold just about anything that wasn’t biological and breathing. Some sold old cameras, coins and other antiques. Others, usually next door, sold old fax machines and other junk that probably hadn’t served a useful function for about a decade.
There is some fascinating stuff on display.
One of the many street markets.
Pretty eclectic vinyl collection.
This seems to be some sort of car shade/display area exchange between the carpet merchants and the car owners.
There is also a lot of random stuff no-one else wants.
An opportunity to go very retro.
We had terrific Shakshuka in a little Greek restaurant across from stores selling old fashioned film lighting equipment and an eclectic collection of vinyl LPs, only some of which I recognised.
We decided to head for the Jaffa/Yafo port and were given directions from a shop owner in typical Israeli fashion. He dismissively told us not to bother with “this Waze” and to just walk straight ahead over a couple roads. It was the sort of direct, helpful and somewhat no-time-for-nonsense advice I have come to identify as typically Israeli: direct, somewhat arrogant but motivated by a desire to help. That short conversation was a highlight of the day for me because it seemed to epitomise what it is to be Israeli for me.
A busy market street scene in Jaffa.
I can only imagine what their history is.
Going back to where it all began
From Yafo, we took a bus to the Palmach Museum for a tour. If you haven’t been to the Palmach Museum and you’re interested in the early years of what became the IDF, you can’t miss it.
The museum is experiential and follows the journey of a group of immigrants to Israel as they join the forerunner of what became the IDF; battle the British and, later, Arab armies to secure Israel’s independence. The exhibits are a combination of themed rooms, video footage and reimagined conversations between the group as the conflict progresses.
Unlike most Israelis who have lived here for some time, I haven’t had the experience of fighting in a conflict or losing people I care about to a war. Just the same, following the story in the museum affected me profoundly. I could never compare what I felt going through the museum to what millions of Israelis have and continue to experience but, at its essence, I felt a connection of some kind to the tragedy that unfolded before us.
Watching the group’s story progress and remembering what I have learned about the conflicts leading up to the War of Independence left me with the strong sense that this is also a part of my history even though much of it predates me and my family has no direct connection to it.
I left the museum feeling a stronger connection to Israel’s history than I ever did to South Africa’s history. Israel’s history is the latest chapter of my people’s history.
Part of our reality
Now that we are here and living here, we face the same threats that our neighbours and friends do. Israel’s enemies don’t draw distinctions between new immigrants and born Israelis. We’re all Jews, we’re all Israelis.
We watched one of the memorial services for Yom HaZikaron one night this last week and one of the speakers mentioned how military service and speaking Hebrew are integral to Israeli life.
Our children may well serve in the IDF when they are old enough. I hope it won’t be necessary for them to serve but if the history of our people is any indication; one day they will be drafted and we will add the experience of seeing our children step into the harm’s way. I don’t look forward to that at all. I don’t think any parent does. At the same time, were it not for the young men and women who have done that, and continue to do it, we wouldn’t live in the only Jewish state.
For now, our kids’ biggest challenges are improving their Hebrew, doing their homework and finding time for all their friends.
When I think about them, Israelis feel a lot like an extended family, most of whom I don’t know and may never meet (some, I probably don’t want to meet). You have all sorts here. Many, like our friends, are hard-working, family-oriented people who continuously help us out and smile on the rare occasion I break out some Hebrew in my very Anglo accent.
I have also come across the Sabras with their tough exterior (mostly when dealing with me) and that sensitive, inner warmth (mostly when interacting with our kids). There are the Haredi who look like they have trundled out of the 18th century and who most other Israelis tend to leave pretty much to themselves. When I think about the personalities I have encountered, it’s a lot like taking your extended family of mixed nuts and expanding it into a population of millions with multi-faceted cultural and linguistic quirks to keep things interesting.
I sometimes think about how few Jews there are in the world and how much energy other groups spend trying to keep us down and push us around. It probably explains a lot of why Israelis tend to be so, well, Israeli. When you are a nation that waited thousands of years to be re-established and has had to fight every day since then not just to survive, but to thrive, you can understand why Israelis can be a little challenging at times. Becoming Israeli is also a lot to do with internalising that history at a visceral level.
Still, becoming Israeli doesn’t come naturally for me. I enjoy how Israelis tend to be pretty frank with each other. On the other hand, my limited Hebrew remains a stumbling block for me. I understand more than I did before but not knowing pretty basic words can be extremely frustrating, depressing even. I feel like I am missing some vital “Israeliness” ingredient. Or maybe I’m just overthinking it.
There is so much to love about Israel and, like any family, it can drive you absolutely crazy more often than you may like. On the other hand, I have had so many experiences that leave me amazed that we live amongst such compassionate and engaged people.
I have so much to learn about being Israeli. A lot of that will come as my Hebrew improves (לאט לאט). As for the rest of it, becoming Israeli, maybe it comes more naturally the longer we live here and experience more of what it means to be part of this feisty nation.
Postscript: A few words from my wife
My wife recently published a related post on her blog simply titled “Home” that is worth reading too:
Did you breakdance in the 1980s? I remember that being huge 30 years ago and I think I even tried to breakdance, once. I thought it disappeared soon after that but it looks like breakdancing is either back or is has resurfaced as a “thing”. I saw some guys breakdancing outside our local mall in Modi’in yesterday and had to smile.
I explained to our kids that this was a big thing about 30 years ago. It took my son a moment to get his head around how long ago that was. He also explained to me that the Hebrew term for it is, predictably, ברקדנס (sounds like “breakdance”).
When I think about it I can’t help but wonder if it has the same meaning for people doing it now that it did back in the day? I mean, it was big before most of the “kids” doing it today were born. That said, when I see stuff like this, it impresses me even more:
And this (really bad audio but wow!):
If you want a taste of breakdancing in the 1980s, take a look at this funky video of Vin Diesel breakdancing back in the day:
I think I remember seeing the movie this next clip came from. It is dubbed, a bit, but it really gives you an idea of the culture back then.
Thank goodness the fashions have changed. I really don’t miss 1980s fashion sense (even though parts of my wardrobe still seem like they came from the 1980s). There is something cool about seeing kids outside a mall with music and mat trying this stuff out and trying to look cool about the attention. Not everything about the 80s is cringeworthy. Well, except maybe these spandex outfits:
Israelis are a crazy people and have a reputation that isn’t always positive. What people often don’t see is how amazing Israelis are. I came across a fantastic story yesterday about how a group of Israelis gatecrashed a quiet wedding in Haifa that really highlights one of the reasons I am proud to be an Israeli.
An American Jewish couple who came to Israel to get married, but found themselves short on guests, were caught by surprise when dozens of Israelis joined them to make their celebration a little bit merrier.
Guests celebrating a bat mitzvah at an adjacent hall in Haifa noticed that Judd and Ma’ayan’s party was almost entirely devoid of attendees.
“We saw the hall was empty. We spoke to the owner and he said that they came from the US to get married,” Miri Shabat told Ynet news. “Some friends from central Israel were supposed to come to the wedding. They couldn’t make it and there were only 20 guests here. So we started running posts on Facebook.”
What happened next was awesome. Here is Miri’s post on Facebook:
:משהו בשביל חברים ישראלי
Yes, we can be abrupt, obnoxious and take arrogance to a whole new level but that doesn’t come close to a complete picture of Israelis. Israeli culture is, well, complicated. There are many aspects of it that I don’t particularly like and I’ve been taken advantage of more than once. Those experiences pale in comparison to all the times our friends and strangers have been unexpectedly and wonderfully generous to us and to people they encounter on the street.
I used to stereotype Israelis before I really met them, before we moved here. I really had no idea. The negative stuff people experience that informs common perceptions about Israelis is really just the thin surface, a superficial layer that sometimes obscures something amazing within. We’re definitely not perfect but, like Shrek said, layers.
I have a growing #writercrush on the Slack creative team. I love their app update notes for the latest 2.0 release don’t disappoint. I love them. I just want to work for Slack just to have an opportunity to contribute to these notes.
Also, this style says a lot about their culture. I’m a big fan and I don’t know anything about what it’s like to actually work there.
My wife wrote a blog post which falls firmly into the category “Hey, I was also going to write a post about that!” which she titled “You say rude, I say cut the bullshit” which touches on something I’ve been thinking about the last week or two.
I have had a line in my Twitter bio for a while which reads:
Allergic to stupid
I have a pretty low tolerance for stupidity and nonsense all around. I realized that we picked a country to move to that similarly has a pretty low tolerance for it. Israelis like to get to the point. As Gina said:
I think the problem is, that what people perceive as rude, is actually a dislike of bullshit. Israelis are direct and to the point. Ask a question and you get an answer not a whole story to go with it.
Hebrew doesn’t seem to have an equivalent for “politically correct” and I like that [Update: I was corrected, there is a phrase for “politically correct” and politicians use it]. I like that Israelis are direct and I have to remind myself to reign in my tendency to give a whole story when I talk about stuff.
My Hebrew is pretty basic but what little I know points to a language that is pretty efficient with words. This whole “to the point” thing seems to be deeply rooted in Israeli culture and rather than struggling with what I initially saw as rudeness (and, yes, there are rude Israelis too), I am relieved that people are so direct.
People here work pretty hard and long hours. There just isn’t time to mess around with fluff and nonsense when you are working and have a lot to get through in a long day. On the other hand, the people we interact with also tend to be really helpful and friendly and make time for us. If anything, this has surprised me most:
Something that has totally blown me away though is the utter acceptance by the parents of the kids Faith and Aaron go to school with. I lost count of how many phone calls and text messages I received in the first few weeks the kids were at school. Not only inviting the kids to play dates but just to say hello and offering any help they could give. The parents are always happy to have the kids come over to them and to help us translate messages from the schools.