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Mossad Aside, Israel Is No Land Of Secrets

A Tel Aviv Tale Of Manners

Windows on the world
Windows on the world
Michael Borgstede


TEL AVIV - When we lived in central Tel Aviv we were able to hold on to something of a private sphere. During the summer months, we'd hermetically close all the windows and turn on the air conditioning. Not only was it nice and cool, but we couldn’t hear the noise of the city – or our neighbors.

But now we live in the suburbs where we don’t have air conditioning and so we have to leave the windows open wide. Even in August you do get the occasional fresh breeze wafting through. The problem is, our neighbors live with their windows wide open too.

So since moving here we’ve learned things like what homework their daughter has the most trouble with. We recognize when the man across the way sinks into his TV-viewing chair earlier than usual. We also know the cooking habits of everybody on our street, who is sleeping with whom -- and how much noise they make when they do.

We seem to be the only ones who think this is strange. Our neighbors approach what seems to us like shocking propinquity with a warm-hearted sense of familiarity.

Recently, a man across the way was standing on his balcony -- shirtless, drinking a cup of peppermint tea -- when he called over to a man in our building: "What? Home already? Is that pretty blonde coming over again? That’s the babysitter? Yeah, sure …"

The not-so secret lives of Israelis

It’s not easy to have secrets in Israel, which can make it quite hard to settle here. Israelis bother with good manners only in dire situations.

On the whole, though, despite a regular supply of petty spats, it must be said that neighborly co-existence is marked by empathy and solidarity, albeit a rough and ready kind. For example, an Israeli will never apologize for being late – something that happens with clockwork regularity.

Also, wherever they are -- the supermarket, the train, the waiting room at the dentist -- Israelis talk on their cell phones (if statistics are anything to go by, they all have more than one), and usually at the top of their lungs. They are also quick to form judgments, and those judgments are not exactly compassionate -- and rarely left unsaid. They bicker with each other uninhibitedly and hate standing in line.

In fact, anybody who wants to live here would do well to practice saying the Hebrew phrase "Ani haiti kodem po" with a certain amount of aggressiveness in their voice. It means "I was here first" and it’s absolutely indispensable for use at the supermarket, the bank, the post office, anywhere you may be buying tickets, and many other places too.

Blame it on the Socialists

Israelis are not big believers in hierarchy. There is something fundamentally egalitarian about them, which is sometimes sympathetic but other times very hard to stand. Maybe it’s because so many of the country’s founding fathers were Socialists.

The Israeli sense of egalitarianism is so extreme that in the early days of color TV, films were shown in black and white so that the privileged minority with a color set wouldn’t be the only ones able to see the movie in color.

Perhaps some of the problematic national characteristics can be traced back to the raw, rough days of the pioneers who were too busy settling the land and building homes to have any time for the usual niceties.

Another possibility is that Israeli Jews, in wanting to set themselves apart from Diaspora Jews, dropped traditionally polite ways of behaving and then somehow never found their way back to them.

The woman next door just left to bring her child to kindergarten. She’s 20 minutes late. The kid wouldn’t eat his honey and bread this morning; in fact he started howling at the top of his lungs right after he woke up at 6:15. Then his dad started screaming, too, saying he was going to move out.

If he does, we neighbors will be the first to know.

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