A Travellerspoint blog

Israeli Culture

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Israel's culture is diverse and complex which is not surprising considering the diversity in Jews who make up the state. These complexities and diversities find union in some areas such as a love for the holidays and for the Land of Israel while at the same time remain unique in the expression.

It seems like there is at least one holiday a month in Israel. Judaism, to most in Israel, is a culture and a tradition rather than a religion. Festivals provide a sense of unity, cultural roots and meaning beyond everyday life. Most are at least familiar with the historical and spiritual background of the holidays but maybe not to the extent that their grandparents remember the traditions being regarded. Many holidays include lengthy Torah portion readings in which the youth grumble about what a waste of time religion is while the elderly express bitter disappointment in the godless generation who have failed to remember what it means to be a Jew. Sometimes the summary of the holidays by the modern Israeli is "Look, it’s like this: They tried to kill us, we survived, let’s eat." That is not to say that this generation is not proud of being Jewish or are choosing to reject the history. But maybe they don't feel the reality of the ancient texts in their lives today. Maybe they feel that being a part of the army and being fiercely patriotic is their expression of faith.

It is impossible to go anywhere in Israel today without encountering Israeli soldiers. They can be seen checking bags in front of the train station or sound asleep siting up on a bus heading home after basic training. Dressed in green uniforms with a machine gun slung over one shoulder, they are Israel's best looking getting old from sleep deprivation. Military service is mandatory for all citizens. Men serve 3 years and woman serve 2. After that, most guys are usually called up to serve for a month out of every year until they are 50. Their initial service begins right out of high school at 18 years of age. Strong friendships are formed in the army which usually last a lifetime. The army has also been a way for this country of immigrants to assimilate and unite. In the army, everyone is equal whether your parents came from France, Ethiopia, the US, Morocco or Russia. The Israeli mindset of team effort is built in the army by tight living quarters and strong group assignments. It carries over when the youth complete their army service and go in packs to India or Thailand. A reporter observed in Bangkok: “When a crowd of Israeli's come into a cafe they don't so much hang out as secure the place.”

You can try to buck the system with a convincing performance of being psychologically inept for service or if you admit to having a drug addiction but you will probably be alone in this attempt. All of your friends will leave for the army and you will constantly feel you have let your mom, dad, aunts and uncles (who all served) down. Israeli's who succeeded to escape the army in their younger days, will tell you today that they feel that was the worst decision of their life. Some even try to go back to do national service of some sort but they still never feel they gave to their country what they owe. As a result, everyone in Israel is a soldier. Some may be bitter and traumatized by war but they are all proud and will say that the army is where they grew from child to Israeli.

Losing two or three years of their lives put Israeli's in somewhat of a hurry after their army service. As if Israeli's had any patience to begin with. This part of their culture can be seen in their fighter pilot style of driving and break neck speed of carrying on conversations.

Supposedly as soon as one learns enough Hebrew, one will find that Israeli's spend most of their time talking about either food or money. Which is strange since they pretty much eat the exact same thing generation in generation out. Sharing a meal together is a strong part of Middle Eastern culture. "He who eats alone dies alone" is a popular proverb here.

The sacred hush of Shabbat is ushered in by the most important meal of the week: Shabbat dinner. This meal is shared with any and all. No one is a stranger at the Shabbat table. The menu varies because Israeli's have come from all over the world. This meal is the soul purpose of Shabbat to most Israeli's. And the next day of course which is a day off. Only the religious, or "Haredim", keep Shabbat to a greater extent.

To make it even more complicated, the religious come in a few different varieties too. The religious are splintered into groups which have their own token Rabbi whose teachings they strive to live up to. For the most part, you can tell a religious person walking down the street by their clothing which is literally from head to toe. Men wear white dress shirts, black pants and a black coat. Sometime you can see loose strands of tzit tzit sticking out of their shirt hem. In some groups of religious, the boys and men have curly side locks. The men have shaggy beards and often wear a black hat. The woman wear two shirts at a time and the hem of their skirt usually brushes the ground. They either cover their hair with a colorful scarf or wear a wig. All this no matter what the season. Even now when being outside feels like you are walking through a pot of rice cooking.

Secular Israeli's eye the most religious groups with great contempt because they receive financial help from the government and are exempt from army service. Some religious groups cause lots of headaches with their demands to make Israel a more religious state. Some of the most religious will throw stones at outsiders who are not dressed up to religious code in their community or at cars which drive anywhere near their homes on Shabbat. In the most religious communities, the roads are actually gated off to prevent outsiders from driving through and disturbing the peace of the Shabbat. You may remember that I reported that some religious started a riot in Jerusalem when the mayor permitted a parking lot to remain open on Shabbat. Other religious groups are more tolerant, serve in the army and receive no government aid.

All of this is completely unreasonable in the eyes of secular Israeli's. Most Israeli's feel religious even though the only law they keep is abstaining from pork and shellfish. They feel religious because their religion is based on the traditions. The festivals, the Shabbat meal, the songs all give Israeli's a strong sense of identity to their past and future as Israeli's. Family bonds are emphasised and the recognition that the Jewish nation has survived (for what they don't know) in spite of countless attempts to obliterate them forever. Even the most bitter atheist knows the festival songs by heart and will rush home for Shabbat dinner at mom's house. Meet an Israeli abroad and watch him get teary eyed at the mention of Jerusalem.

The Haredim view secular Israeli's with a mixture of pity and scorn. They believe that the Messiah can not come until every Jew keeps the Shabbat so they feel they are being held back by the shameful neglect of the secular. Every Friday on street corners in some of the most hip parts of Tel Aviv (I have seen them in New York City doing the same thing too) some of the most religious set up booths in an attempt to win back the coolest of this generation. They beg guys to read prayers and hand out little booklets with pictures of Rabbi's on the front.

Up from the four corners of the earth having survived generations of unspeakable persecution Jews have made the homeland of Israel a unique and vibrant place. A land where tradition reigns. A land where service to ones country is esteemed. A land with a rich history and mysterious promises of what is yet to come. This is the culture of Israel.

Posted by Sarah 2116 14:32 Comments (1)

Tu B'Av

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Today is יום האהבה (the day of love) celebrated on Tu B'Av. It is the last holiday in the Jewish year. In Israel it is the equivalent of Valentines Day. People give roses to their sweethearts and romantic songs are played on the radio. Parties are held and it is a favorite date for weddings.

According to Jewish tradition, Tu B'Av has been a significant day throughout history. The Torah relates that the entire generation who left Egypt would die in the desert because they succumbed to fear and believed the negative report about the Promised Land from the spies. So instead of living in the Promised Land, they wandered in the wilderness for 40 years. According to the Midrash, 15,000 of the faithless sons of Israel died on the eve of the 9th of Av for 39 years. According to tradition (because who knows who much of this is actually true and how much has been embellished), thousands and thousands of graves were dug in preparation and everyone would actually sleep in graves that night. Whoever lived to see the morning knew they had at least one more year to wander in the wilderness until the next Tu B'Av. On the 40th year everyone survived the night. The children of Israel thought that maybe they got the date mixed up. So they slept in graves the next night. But again everyone woke up the next morning! Finally they realized that God had forgiven them. Overwhelmed by His great love, they remember that day as the day of love even until now.

Tu B'Av became particularly popular around the time of the Second Temple when a new tradition was added. In a sort of romantic masquerade, the single girls would exchange white dresses with one another so that their prospects would not know who could afford an expensive dress and who was just borrowing one. All the young people would gather in the vineyards outside of Jerusalem. The girls would dance and sing the words to Proverbs 31:30 "Charm is deceptive, and beauty is fleeting; but a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised." שקר החן והבל היפי אשה יראת יהוה היא תתהלל The young men were supposed to choose their bride that evening. The Talmud declares that the only other day of the year equally joyous as Tu B'Av is Yom Kippur.

Carmella gave us a lesson on love today in honor of Tu B'Av. She wrote compound words (called a smichute in Hebrew) on the board which have love in them. We learned אהבת אם (mother's love) אהבת עבודה (work alcoholic-someone who loves work) אהבת אדם (humanitarian-someone who loves mankind) אהבת דעת (love of knowledge) to name a few. She also brought chocolate for the class because she said she loves us.

Posted by Sarah 2116 07:22 Comments (0)

Tisha B'Av

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Tisha B'Av is a national day of mourning commemorating the destruction of both of the temples. It usually falls somewhere in July or August of the Gregorian calender. According to the Jewish calender, Av is the fifth month of the year. Tisha is the ninth day. So Tisha B'Av literally means the ninth day in Av. On this day in history the First and Second Temples were destroyed in Jerusalem on the exact same day 656 years apart. Some take it one step further and remember all of the tragedies that happened throughout history in this month. This year Tisha B'Av was this Thursday. Many people fast on this day. Observant Jews in Israel also abstain from bathing. Most restaurants, schools, banks and theaters were closed throughout Israel. So I had the day off of Ulpan on Thursday. On Wednesday, we spent the day learning about Tisha B'Av. We read about the history of Jerusalem and especially King David and King Solomon.

Posted by Sarah 2116 16:11 Comments (0)

Behind the Name

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A lot can be discovered about Israeli culture from the street names. There are no numbered streets in Israel other than highways. Every street is dedicated to either the memory of someone great, to something that makes Israel unique or to a particular quality especially admired by Israeli's.

According to Mapa, which is Israel leading geographical research group, the most used street name is Rehove HaZayit (The Olive street). There are 124 HaZayit Streets in Israel. Considering there are only 178 municipalities in Israel, that means almost every one has an Olive street. The olive is the symbol of peace and is an extremely valued item in Israeli cooking. Olives are a part of most Israeli meals and are also exported so they are also a source of revenue for the country. Other trees are honored with street names too. At least half of the municipalities in Israel have a street called: HaGefen (grape vine), HaTe'ena (fig), HaRimon (pomegranate), HaTamar (date palm), HaDekel (palm), Ha'Ela (pistachio), HaShaked (almond) and HaBrosh (cypress).

Many famous people who made a deep impact on the State are honored with street names. Almost every city has a Jabotinsky street honoring the founding father of the revisionist Zionist movement. Many of Israel's past Prime minister's and statesmen have streets in their honor including Herzl (visionary of the Jewish state), Ben-Gurion (first Prime Minister), and Weizmann (first President). There is also Ben Yehuda Street's celebrating Eliazar Ben Yehuda the father of the modern Hebrew language. There are dozens of Meleck David (King David) Streets, Shmuel Hanavi (Samuel the Prophet) Streets too. I live on Rothschild Street. There aren't many Rothschild Street's in Israel but it is one of the main ones in Petech Tikvah and also in Tel Aviv. Baron Rothschild was a French banker who was a strong Zionist supporter and whose generous financial donations helped to establish Israel.

Ironically there is also an Abraham Lincoln Street in Jerusalem and a George Washington Street too.

When Israel was founded it was a season of great hope and triumph so many city names and street names reflect qualities of courage, strength and hope. There are streets called Haganah (the defense), Petech Tikvah Road (opening to hope), and Ness Tziona (Zion the miracle).

Hebrew is a deep language which adores symbolism and meaningful connections. In Ulpan last week we learned the word for "overcome." In Hebrew, the word for hero is literally "the one that overcame." The Hebrew equivalent for okay is besedar. Besedar means "in order." So when you ask your friend how she has been doing and she answers "I am ok (ani besedar)" she is literally telling you that her life is in order.

Parents give their children names with rich meaning. Names here are not separate words but are part of regular vocabulary. There are little girls here named Oreli which literally means my light. Shai is the word for gift which is another word that is commonly given to children.

Posted by Sarah 2116 13:37 Comments (1)

Figures of Speech

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Every language has it's sayings and expressions. Here are some of the best Hebrew expressions I have heard so far:

Khaval al hazman- an all purpose expression which describes an extreme situation whether positive or negative.
Literally: pity for the time
Way to use it positive:
"How was the water park?"
"Khaval al hazman!!!"
Way to use it negative:
"The traffic on that street is totally ridiculous. Khaval al hazman."

Ptsatsa- excellent; beyond description;great!
Literally: a bomb or explosion

Mashahu mashahu- used when something defies description and words fail
Literally: Something something

Ba li hase'if- when something annoying happens and you lose your temper
Literally: The clause came to me
The "clause" refers to the nerve clause of the military health chart. When soldiers lose their nerve in duty they're likely to get discharged.

Tered li mekakarakhat- when you are sick of someones nagging and you want to get rid of them
Literally: get off my baldness

Khapes oti basivuv- when someone is pestering you to do something and you want to tell them to get lost
Literally: go look for me in the street corner.

Al hapanime- when you feel like a situation is hopeless and you are surrounded by gloom.
Literally: on the face; you can see the gloom on the face

La panime- when someone makes a quick verbal comeback or does something really extreme
Literally: to the face

Leer kod bshtay chatnoot- when someone is doing to much at once
Literally: dancing in two weddings

La asote smineeyote bavier- when you think someone is exaggerating
Literally: to make 8's in the air

Yesh lach(a) yadime mezahav- to express when someone is industrious, diligent and hard working
Literally: he/she has hands from gold

Chateech(ka)- when someone is really adorable
Literally: cute as a piece of cake

Yesh lo jukee ba rosh- when you think someone is crazy
Literally: he has bugs in his head

Mommy- a term of endearment; sweet-y

Ani meta aliek- when you want to say that you are totally in love
Literally: I am dying for you

Nafali bay pach- when you feel trapped
Literally: I fell in a trash can.

Chick chuck- quickly
Example: "I am going to run into this store chick chuck so just wait in the car for me."

Ani ary lach(a) me efo dag mashteen- a threat of revenge
Literally: I will show you where the fish pee.

Posted by Sarah 2116 13:20 Comments (2)

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