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October 4, 2015 | 21st Tishrei 5776

Israeli Culture IV

Galilee Diary #248
August 28, 2005
Marc J. Rosenstein

I remember that when I first visited Israel, as a teenager, one of the things that made a strong impression on me was the sign at the front of every car in the Haifa inclined railway-subway (the
”Carmelit”), consisting of the first phrase of Leviticus 19:32:

You shall rise before the aged [and the verse continues: “and show deference to the old; you shall fear your God: I am the Lord”].

To me that sign symbolized the best in – and what was distinctive about - Israeli culture: a biblical verse being used to make a value statement in a totally secular and mundane setting. In other words, someone in the transportation department of the Haifa municipality had seen fit to immortalize in stenciled paint the connection between a classical text and civilized behavior on the subway. That’s what we came back here for, isn’t it – the revitalization of the tradition? Later, the Egged bus cooperative picked up on the idea, and such signs can now be seen in many buses, all over the country.

However, the warm fuzzy feelings that I get from such examples of Israeli culture are often severely cooled by the experience of trying to board that same bus on a Sunday morning. If you mention to an Israeli – or to a tourist – the Israeli attitude toward waiting in line, you will get something between an ironic chuckle and a furious expletive: everybody knows – and everybody suffers from and hates – the unfathomable reality of Israeli line-behavior, which has a corollary in driving behavior (where the stakes are, unfortunately, a lot higher). Much has been written about this favorite “only in Israel” topic, and many learned and unlearned explanations proposed:

The tension of being always at war; the memories of shortages; the rebellion against the lines of communist Russia; the Third World; the heat; the melting pot; the mutual suspicions and mistrust of an immigrant society; the valuing of total honesty {i.e., niceness is really a form of insincerity); lack of “culture;” etc. I have given up trying to understand it, and have made pretty major progress in talking myself out of the rage that I feel when I arrive first to an empty bus stop and find myself missing the bus when the doors close in my face, fifty people having pushed their way in front of me – or when the highway is reduced from two lanes to one and no one – no one – will hesitate for a second to let me merge in front of him. The method is clear: never make eye contact; look straight ahead as if there is no one else on the road or trying to squeeze in the door; eye contact would obligate you to take account of the other’s existence and maybe even recognize his claim to the right of passage, which is of course unacceptable. People who let others get ahead of them are called “friars” in Israeli slang – usually translated as “suckers.” “Why should I be a friar?” seems a kind of national motto.

This seemingly trivial cultural phenomenon is one of the most frustrating and disappointing aspects of life here for immigrants from the lands of long, orderly lines and “have a nice day.” It can truly test – or overwhelm – one’s sense of humor. And I think the frustration is intensified by the conflict between the reality and the ideal – between the crude pushiness of Israeli society (from the bus stop to the Knesset) and our vision of a state founded on values like “You shall rise before the aged,” and “You shall not… bear a grudge,” and “Love your neighbor as yourself…” and “… you shall not wrong [a stranger];” (all from Leviticus 19). Once again, one finds oneself faced with the temptation to be swept along in the current, and to accept the reality – instead of trying to stand firm and be a model of commitment to the ideal. It is easy to simply out-push the others (after all, I do need to get on a bus, eventually); but then – what will become of us? I have a friend, a creative and outspoken teacher, who made buttons for herself and her students, reading: “I’m a friar – and proud of it!”

I’m a friar – and proud of it.

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