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When in Israel, do as the Israelis do

Updated: Jul 24, 2020

On my first day working in my new office in Israel, I joined a weekly manager meeting. I remember sitting next to another Anglo who had been in Israel for a while and asking him why everyone is yelling at each other. They all just seemed so angry. He laughed at my very shocked expression and said, "no one is angry. This is just how they speak."

Israelis don't necessarily have the reputation of being the easiest people to deal with. In general, the culture here tends to breed people always ready for an argument (although, if you ask them, it's not an argument at all just a regular, even a mundane and lackluster, conversation). Spending time experiencing the Israeli culture often results in major culture shock for non-Israelis.

Ask every oleh you encounter and they all will have a plethora of "only in Israel" stories - some good, some bad, some absolutely cringe-worthy and others completely heartwarming.

In order to fully be able to adjust here, I've realized you have to accept that you cannot change the Israeli way of life. You can either choose to get annoyed every time an Israeli yells at you for a seemingly stupid reason or you can choose to accept this country for the way it is and understand the positive side of Israel's informal and invasive culture.

The fact is that you become family when you move here. I will concede that it is not the Brady Bunch kind of family but family is family. Israelis will yell at you like family and tell you exactly how they think you should run your life / parent your children / do your job /etc. they will say everything with absolute certainty that you will start questioning everything you knew on the topic before (my Israeli colleagues legit convinced me that I have been spelling my name wrong my whole life). But you know what else they will do? They will happily hold your baby while you unload your groceries onto the checkout counter, they will help you get up if you fall down (I mean literally but probably also metaphorically) and they will literally jump in front of a moving car to save your life.

When I first made Aliyah and started working in an Israeli office, I was in a constant state of culture shock. I felt like I was being pranked and would soon find out I was on some kind of hidden camera TV show. But now, 6 years later, I get it. I more than get it, I actually have adopted some of it in my own behavior.

My intention for this post will be to try to explain some of the key things I have learned about Israeli culture. Hopefully this will help you all be prepared as much as possible for the inevitable culture shock you will experience the first time an Israeli yells at you for not putting a warm enough sweater on your child or when they ask you how much you paid for your apartment.

The 411 on Israeli Culture - What I've learned about Sabras

1. Israelis are extremely passionate people about literally EVERYTHING. I often find myself rolling my eyes at the constant buzzing from the kids' multiple class whatsapp groups because EVERYTHING is a thing.

2. An Israeli's biggest fear is not terrorist attacks or nuclear warfare. Their biggest fear is being a freier. A 'freier' is essentially, a sucker - someone who is easily taken advantage of. Many of the characteristic Israeli "hardness" is based on this key part of their culture to not be a freier.

3. The majority of Israelis I have met are extremely confident people. They have no problem saying exactly what's on their minds, irrelevant of their audience (political correctness is not a thing here).

4. They often try to put people in boxes (especially religiously and politically) but, in general, they think outside the box in their own lives.

5. Negotiating and arguing is a part of life here. Everything is a no until its a yes, and prices are non-negotiable until they're negotiable. This is an extremely important one to understand as an immigrant. I can't tell you how many times I have tried to get an appointment at a doctor or another similar scenario where the first answer is "no, it's not possible." As someone who is used to U.S. customer service, my instinct is always to feel insulted and frustrated. Then I remember that I am in Israel and need to push back a bit. In the end, I can usually push my way to a yes at least 60% of the time but this was not something I was comfortable doing until I really understood that a no is just the start to the conversation.

6. Israelis don't just say something to be polite. If they say it, they mean it. They joke here that if an American says, "we should do coffee some time," it means they probably never want to see you again. When an Israeli says it, expect them to show up at your house the next day ready to go for coffee.

An Israeli's biggest fear is not terrorist attacks or nuclear warfare. Their biggest fear is being a freier.

7. Israelis hate fakeness. Americans in particular have a bad rep when it comes to the fakeness. (For example, ask an American how they are and the answer is usually great, awesome, maybe fine if it's a really bad day).

8. There is no such thing as personal space. This has somewhat improved as a result of Corona but I'm not expecting it to last long after corona ends.

9. Israelis take coffee very seriously. If you tell an Israeli you prefer starbucks, be prepared for them to laugh at you or mutter "Stupid Americans" under their breath whether or not you are actually American.

10. If I knew more about army lingo, I would probably understand 65% more of the jokes here.

11. Israelis tend to respect people who step outside their comfort zones.

12. Never feel bad asking an Israeli for help - If they can help, they will want to. If they can't, they will have no problem telling you.

13. Israelis will pee anywhere. Most public parks don't have bathrooms available and you will often find fully grown adults with their car pulled over on the side of the highway peeing.

14. Customer service is not a thing here. Be prepared.

Now, this list might scare you. You may be thinking, "how can I ever expect to survive living there." Fear not, because if I can do it, anyone can do it.

The 4 stages of My Integration into Israeli Culture

1. Shock / Horror

Me on my Aliyah day

Let me introduce you to Rayla-6 years ago. She looked a lot like me. She was sweet, innocent and trusting. She did not like to argue and did not really know how to assert herself too well. She was a bit shy but extremely professional. Rayla-6 years ago went into a meeting at work and after hearing participants yelling and interrupting each other repeatedly, one stood up and said "יש לי פיפי דחוף" (translated as, I have an urgent peepee or as they would say in other countries, excuse me, I need to use the restroom).

I sat horrified. Truly horrified. Trying to hold back my giggle (because, even as a mature, professional adult I feel the need to laugh at the word peepee), I looked around, certain that everyone else would look equally as horrified. Nope - it didn't even seem to register on anyone else's radar.

[P.S. to this story - when I told my boss recently that I was planning on starting the Aliyah Planner website, her first reaction was " make sure to tell them the peepee story." So, there you go.]

As you can imagine, Rayla-6 years ago had begun to understand that she is not in Kansas anymore. A few days later, she was in a meeting with a pension fund manager to go through her pension benefits. The meeting essentially went like this (paraphrased):

Pension fund manager (PFM): So your husband learns all day?

me: *confused* uh, no he works. You mean, like is he in school?

PFM: But you're charedi (ultra orthodox), right?

me: *even more confused* uh, no. I'm Dati Leumi I think (modern orthodox).

PFM: But you are wearing a wig to cover your hair?

me: yes

PFM: so you are charedi

me: no

PFM: *with a pitying expression for the stupid american who must not understand Hebrew* but your husband wears a black kippah right? not a kippah sruga.

me: my husband wears a kippah sruga. Why is this related to my pension fund?

PFM: *yelling* If your husband wears a kippah sruga why would you wear a wig?? You don't live in Bnei Brak?

Me: no, I live in Givat Shmuel

PFM: oh, so do I.

Only in Israel.

2. Acceptance

After some time, I grew to accept the nature of Israelis. I would occasionally feel insulted when I was yelled out for no apparent reason or when random strangers just wanted to argue about nothing but I still was sweet and innocent Rayla. I constantly told everyone everything was fine or great or awesome. I still constantly started my sentences with 'I'm sorry but' and was embarrassed to really express myself or ask questions.

My kids on the other hand fully embraced the Israeli chutzpah (a bit too naturally if you ask me). My daughter, Dalya, who was 5 when we first moved said to me in the park, "Ima, it's time to let us be Israeli. Let us walk around barefoot, eat falafel, and pee in the park."

When Dalya was having a playdate a few months after we moved I overheard them playing "makolet" or market. Dalya asked her friend how much the apple cost and her friend, the fruit seller, said 5 shekel. My newly Israelified 5 year old said "אני לא משלמת יותר מ-2 ש"ח" (translation: I won't pay more than 2 shekel). It literally blew my mind how quickly kids adapt.

If you want to prepare yourself, check out the Monty Python negotiation video.

3. Appreciation

I'll be honest. The appreciation stage took me a while to reach and its not necessarily a constant feeling. I still have those days where I get super frustrated at the Israeli mentality. As Yosef so succinctly explained, "I love that they are willing to jump in front of a bullet for me but it would also be nice if they'd just say thank you when I hold open a door for them."

I was looking through my old Facebook posts and found all these gems from the stories I posted through the years. I am so thankful that I have gotten to a point where I can look at most of these stories with humor and appreciation rather than bitterness and regret.

I now feel like I have learned to look at Israelis like works of abstract art. Before you learn to appreciate the beauty and understand the story that the artist is trying to tell you, it just looks like chaos. After you learn, it turns into artistic chaos.

4. If you can't beat 'em, join 'em

Now let's get back to the Rayla of today. I like to think I am still somewhat sweet and innocent but I have learned to speak up for myself and assert myself more. I still may lack some of the Israeli chutzpah that comes so naturally to native Israelis (and my kids) but I understand now that no doesn't mean no and that's just a starting point. I understand that salesmen expect you to negotiate prices with them and there is no reason to be embarrassed to do it. I understand that just because my natural inclination is to be easily intimidated, when someone says something so confidently it doesn't mean they are right.

Once you learn these lessons, life here becomes so much easier. For example, recently my husband sent a message to a repairman asking if he can come in the evening to fix something. His answer was "no, it has to be in the morning." If this had happened a few years earlier, Yosef would have accepted it and then we would have to figure out which of us would have to miss work and stay home to wait for the repairman. Instead, Yosef just answered that we go to work and will be home after 5pm and the repairman agreed to come then.

It's such a different life that we live since we figured out how to accept the culture. We will always stick out like the classic Americans we are but I've found that, with most Israelis, we now have reached a point of mutual respect. Today's Rayla finds it weird when we go back to America and everyone keeps saying sorry for everything and is ridiculously and fakely polite. (No offense Americans, I love you all but, seriously, after a few years here you will completely understand what I mean).

I am proud of how far I and my family came in the 6 years we have been here. I am proud that we have become stronger and more confident people who always prefer to find a way out of an argument, but if there has to be one, know that we can assert ourselves without being rude or aggressive. We love living in a country made up of strong and smart people who created a start up nation from an empty desert. Culture shock is likely inevitable but, for my family, learning how to embrace it rather than fight it changed our perspectives and our interactions completely.

Slide presented by Intel on "Working with Israelis"

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