As promised, I said I wouldn't keep the secret for long as to what are a few of my favorite things about living in Israel. After all, it's only fair to discuss Israel's strengths - especially after advertising the few weaknesses (okay, okay, so I pointed out more than just a few...) that had begun to drive me absolutely crazy (at times) about living here. Admittedly, since writing that "Top 10 List", I must reluctantly tell you that the Pandora's box has exploded open, flooding in more and more obscure realities and frustrations to add to my list. So it seems fitting that now, in the name of balance, I will happily clue you in to some of the several features that I have grown to love about living in Israel (yes, they do exist!) Without further ado, here is a look at the "Top 10 Things That I Love (in Israel)":
10) FRESH PRODUCE That's right, folks, you read that correctly. Something as little as the constant and steady stream of fresh fruits and vegetables in the grocery store somehow always manages to bring a smile to my face. You can't seem to walk by the produce aisle without ogling the perfect looking strawberries and grapes and without appreciating the bursting, bright colors of fresh eggplant, peppers, tomatoes and yes, even those green items. Here in Israel, fruit and veggies are always in season, and it's impossible to walk out of the grocery store without a few additions to your cart. It's tempting to eat healthy here when the produce always looks so inviting and delicious. I can remember so many times back home in the US when all I wanted was some fresh pineapple or mango, you name it....only to be disappointed with the selection and go to fetch some Flipz instead. So much for trying to be good back home all the time. Oh, and the yogurt, well, it's to die for. If any of you have been to Europe and know what I'm talking about....the type of yogurt that pours out of a carton smooth as milk....well, then you can appreciate my love for this delicacy. I don't know why the US doesn't get on board with the same scrumptious yogurts! I can tell you one thing for sure: if and when we return to the US, leaving behind the fresh produce (and the yogurt and the baked goods and the cheeses and meats and, okay now...I think you catch my drift) will be one of the most heart-breaking things with which to part.
9) NO COMMERCIALS Okay, so you know how you're watching your favorite television show and it's getting right to the best part when - boom! - a commercial interrupts your show-watching experience? Yeah, I thought so. There you were on the edge of your seat, dying to know what would happen next. And before you know it, the whole moment's lost. You sit through a bunch of boring advertisements for meaningless products.....and by the time the show comes back around, you've already moved on and lost interest. Sure, you'll watch the rest of the show but it's just plain annoying to be repeatedly removed from the mind frame you were in. Okay, so I know that's exactly why they invented TiVo. But guess what?! There is a solution out there that beats even digital recording. What is it? I won't keep you waiting any longer. Here in Israel, there are no commercials. Ummm, yes, you read that correctly. No commercials! Zilch, nada, nil, zero. Say it however you want to, I think you get the idea! I was flabbergasted the first time I was watching Ellen here in Israel, eager to see through the next portion of the show. In the same breath, I let out a sigh of annoyance that I would have to wait a few minutes to see the next guest (which they had just previewed a teaser for) and then suddenly, my mood changed to confusion and cautious contemplation as the show skipped right over the commercials and went directly to the next segmet of the show. "What?! What happened here?! This is strraaaaannnnge", I said to Rafi. To which he replied, "Oh, I never told you? Yeah, there's no commercials here in Israel". Awesome. Completely and utterly brilliant. I love watching my guests' faces light up as they discover this fact for themselves as well. What a novel idea, Israel. Way to go.
8) FAMILY VALUES I have always been frustrated with the (perceived) misplaced priorities in the United States. Sure, there are a number of positive qualities that Americans value of which I am proud to share (i.e. timeliness, hard work, determination, education, awareness, freedom, etc.); but at the same time, there are a plethora of shared priorities that depress and disappoint me (i.e. work, work and more work; money, money, money; reputation building, popularity, and body image, just to name a few). In Israel, as in any other country, there are values unique to this nation that make it and define it as its own entity, different from any other; country or civilization and, well, I kind of like what they've got going here. Just the other weekend, Rafi and I found ourselves begrudgingly walking through a religious area of Jerusalem on Shabbat. These areas close themselves off to cars for the weekend and we had to walk through to the other side (a significant walk) in order to finally snag a taxi back to reality. There are no cell phones being used, no televisions being watched, no exercise being had, and no food being cooked. The rules are pure and simple: it's family time. All throughout the streets, you will see hundreds and hundreds of families walking, talking, holding hands, playing on the playgrounds, laughing, singing and most importantly, smiling. It goes on for miles and miles. At times, I feel like I'm in an alternate universe. On a movie set maybe. But, no, it's reality (for here, at least...). I so clearly do not fit in to this polarized side of my own religion in terms of how I dress and how I keep my home, but I cannot help but be filled with a deep sense of agreement and appreciation as I find myself immersed in a neighborhood within a city that so closely mirrors the values that I've always said come first to me: family, friends and community. I cannot tell you how refreshing it is to live alongside a whole country whose individual priorities are all in unison with one another, and more importantly, with my own. What a comforting revelation and a profound revolution.
7) BE WHO YOU ARE Since we're on the topic of values, I could not leave out my excitement for living in a country that has tossed out my number one most detested American value, which is that of the facade, and replaced it with the value of modesty. I remember studying abroad in Australia and being so excited to have found a place that was just as beautiful as the California coastline, yet miraculously it was without the pretentiousness and competition that so heavily plagued my western home. Young women grow up in California, and in all western civilizations really, with the pressure to be thin, to be perfect, to look a certain way, to dress well, to compete, to join the best sororities, to be accepted, and to be better than all the rest. I have spent years studying the effects of this mentality throughout my undergraduate major in communications and my master's degree in counseling. It was nothing short of a miracle to discover another type of existence when I was living in Australia. Girls and guys did not feel so much pressure; they were more laid back and more casual, both in their approach to work and life as well as in their dress and demeanor. Ahhh, how very refreshing it was; I didn't want to leave, and in fact, considered going back for a number of years. Well, suffice it to say, I have found another place (hint, hint: it's Israel) that has thrown out the impossible standards of perfection and competition, and instead replaced them with the humbling qualities of modesty and be-as-you-are. Sure, it's a bit annoying that I don't have the luxury of fancy stores and gazillions of hair product options like I do back home; however, the result is a country full of people who really don't give a care as to what their hair looks like or how they're dressed. Here, people definitely don't dress to impress and surely are carefree when it comes to their overall appearance. You will notice this in whatever city you find yourself in Israel. For me, it is always one of the first things I notice upon arrival. Instead of looking drab, people simply look confident and comfortable in their own skin. Since there is no competition and no expectations, what results is just pure acceptance and I have to tell you, it feels goooood. Not worrying about appearances really allows you to focus on the things that are more important in life. I think Israel got this one right.
6) SUN! Okay, so, if you're one of those (many) people who are like me - and by like me I mean one of those people who needs sun in order to survive, then I think you too would be happy here in Israel. Well, winter sucks. And yes, we do have a winter. What kind of winter? Well, we're wearing long socks, boots, jeans, turtlenecks, heavy jackets, scarves and mittens too. You can see your breath in the morning and throughout many cold days. The freezing desert wind whips by, bringing the temperatures down into the 30s and 40s during the winter months. Since there's no central heating, you spend about three solid months being chilled to the bone. And yes, it snows here too, just a few days a year, but it can snow and does snow. But, and this is a heavy but, after those three months have passed, what you have left for the remainder of the year is what you may already know: one of the hottest climates on planet Earth. And I couldn't be happier. You are talking to someone whose favorite state is Arizona. I am a desert girl through and through. Out of everywhere in the world I've been, Sedona and Scottsdale are two of my favorite places on Earth. So, it would make sense, logically, that Israel would also be close to my heart, and you are absolutely right. The scorching sun may be too much at times, yes, but it's all worth it for those cloudless blue skies and the warm summer air that wraps you up in a blanket when you step outside. Sun makes me happy and since Israel has sun to boot, Israel thus makes me happy. I am waiting on pins and needles for spring to officially commence and couldn't be more excited to live somewhere where I know the sun is going to be shining down on me day in and day out. Get back to me in the summer months though (I may just have to refute this post....).
5) ONE BIG HAPPY FAMILY Israel has kind of adopted the attitude that the entire country is sort of like one big happy family. Imagine the US being the size of New Jersey.....everyone would know each other, pretty much, right? It's hard to imagine, I know. Then imagine that everyone in that small space in New Jersey shares the same religion, the same historical background and the same traditions and roots. Pretty heart-warming, isn't it? Well, it just so happens that this place does exist and it's here in Israel. Israel is often compared to New Jersey in its size, which gives you a sense of its breadth. Inside this small space, there is a sense of camaraderie and community that is foreign and impossible to establish in such vast spaces as the entirety of the United States. Within these small borders, we all share a common bond, a common ancestry, common roots and a common history. Okay, well actually it's more like 2/3 of us share these ties (were you aware that 1/3 of Israel is not Jewish...there are Arabs, Druze, Christians, Armenians, and the list goes on...) but anyways, there is nowhere else in the world like it. Absolutely no where else on Earth (with the exception of perhaps Brooklyn and New York City...) that has the connectedness for the Jewish people that Israel has here. I had no idea how valuable it was and how empowering and uplifting it would be to live in a community and a nation with shared values (that were also my own) until I immersed myself in it for an extended period of time. In the United States, I have been and always will be a minority no matter how long I live there. I feel this every time Christmas comes around, every time religion is introduced into the classroom (and even into the Pledge of Allegiance...) and every time Bible references are worked into a political speech, and so on. To live in a place where the entire country is like one big happy family is both thrilling and exhilarating at the same time. Every faith and every common ancestry should have such a place to live.
4) CAFES GALORE Those who know me well know that I love nothing more than dining out at an outdoor cafe on a sunny day in the company of loved ones and good friends. Part of Israeli culture, luckily for me, is based around the concept of the cafe culture. In fact, after college, I longed so much for this European lifestyle that I nearly stayed on in Barcelona, Spain after spending some time studying Spanish there. Albeit, Barcelona was not to be in my lifelong plan. In Tel Aviv, however, I am pleased to say that you will find street after street and avenue after avenue lined with cafes, coffee shops and eateries. The per capita cafe to street ratio is sky-high as compared to other international cities. And the same holds true throughout all of Israel. Wherever you go, you simply cannot get enough. You would be surprised that even here in Jerusalem you can find an amalgam of cafes and eateries to suite your eager taste buds. Picture the sun beaming down, the bustle of chairs and conversation, and the clicking and clacking of silverware against the plates and glasses as the warm wind breezes through your hair. Ah, yes, this is Israel and I simply love this aspect of my new home in the Mediterranean.
3) LOCATION, LOCATION, LOCATION While we're on the topic of Europe, did I mention that Europe was just next door? Well, it is, and I couldn't be happier. I've just got to make the effort to get over there more often! That means Italy, Turkey, Greece, Switzerland, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom...you name it....and even Russia and northern Europe are just a hop, skip and a jump away. The travel possibilities are endless and my taste buds are salivating just imagining all the itineraries I could snatch up and carry through at any moment. Not only this, but also, Israel itself is quite the anomaly. You would be surprised what diversity you would find in one small country, and I've done my best to try to showcase in previous posts what sorts of destinations you can find throughout the holy land. To the north you have river rafting, beautiful hikes, waterfalls, and even Roman ruins; in the center you have vineyards and wineries, big city life, and beaches galore next to the most ancient of cities; and to the south you have the Dead Sea, the Negev desert, beautiful hikes and desert terrains, a gateway to Jordan and Egypt, and also, a scuba diver's paradise situated in a bustling resort town. And this is just the tip of the iceberg, the icing on the cake if you will. Israel may be in the Middle East, but you would never know it if you were plopped dead center in the middle of one its major cities, wrought with modernization. Clearly, one of the things I love about Israel is its incomparable location and its unending variety! To top it off, Israel is one of the most demographically diverse countries in the world with the most interesting assortment of ethnicities, cultures, religions and peoples within the closest of proximities to one another. It is truly a people-watching paradise that will never disappoint with the abundance of opportunities it has to offer the discerning traveler.
2) PROUD TO BE AN........ISRAELI Israelis are not shy when it comes to the pride they associate with their nationalism and identity. They love to brag and for good reason, because they have a lot to take pride in. Most of you likely know that Israel is at the forefront of the technology world, but perhaps you may not know the specifics. Since its founding in 1948, Israel has proudly developed a wide assortment of valuable worldwide products including some of the following: USB drives, Internet processing systems, Windows XP, Vista, Firewall software, instant messaging systems, Tsunami detection systems, acne treatment, breast cancer detection software, a variety of guns and rifles, cell phones (an important one!), voicemail, and the camera phone, just to name a few. And that's just the technology side, we haven't even gotten started on the academia. Furthermore, Israelis also take pride in their national identity due in large part to the obligatory army service that they are all required to complete after high school. Every single Israeli citizen (with a few exceptions of course) have completed between 2-5 years of military service and it makes for a nationalistic environment in which each person is utterly connected to their country. What results is an immense sense of pride and joy that you can feel from the moment you land in Israel. If you've every flown El Al to Israel, you know what I am talking about: the landing is accompanied by the joyous raucous of a plane full of singing, dancing and clapping along to popular and celebratory Israeli songs. There is really nothing like it and it's definitely something to experience.
The reasons that Israelis have to be proud are multiple and lengthy and have as much to do with the founding of the country itself as it has to do with the innate spirit that the culture has fostered in its citizens. I can remember that same feeling, to an extent, in Dallas, when I would hear people singing with pride and joy their state song, "Deep in the heart of Texassss! The prairie sky is wide and high! Deep in the heart of Texassssss! The sage in bloom is like perfume..." Here in Israel, everywhere you look and everywhere you go, you cannot help but feel the bursting confidence and pride that people have to be an Israeli - a battle that was well-fought, much-deserved, and even more appreciated. You see it in their dress, in their manners, in their speech and in their traditions. It's impossible for the celebratory spirit to not rub off on you when you live amidst such pride.
1) CELEBRATION! Speaking of the celebratory spirit, Israelis certainly know how to celebrate their special occasions. Being a lover of holidays and rites of passage, I am in the perfect place to take advantage of a country that celebrates its every possible festivity. Israelis love to party and they love to do it BIG. Whether it's a wedding or Bar Mitzvah, Simchat Torah gathering or Independence Day celebration, Israelis do not let a single detail slide. Part of Israeli culture, and Jewish culture in general, is upholding the traditions and practices that have been a part of the culture for thousands of years. What results is the most festive of celebrations that I've ever bore witness to, including the New Year's Eve-style celebrations that gather in the streets for the eight days of Hanukkah or the upcoming Halloween-style festivities that will overtake the country in just a few weeks for the outrageous, costumed and drunken holiday of Purim. If you've ever been so lucky to witness a Bar Mitzvah parade in Israel, that is one of the most exciting scenes you can see walking down the street as nearly 100 men and women sing, dance, clap and gather in joyous prayer for the young Bar or Bat Mitzvah boy or girl. The Torah is hoisted up in the air and sometimes the young boy or girl is being lifted up and down as the group dances and walks through the streets. Heck, Israelis even celebrate the new start to every month as Rosh Chodesh (the new month) happens upon us every 30 days or so.
There is something thrilling about living in a country where every holiday celebrated is something that I can participate in, as opposed to back home in the US, where half the holidays weren't for me to enjoy, i.e. Easter, Christmas, etc. Some of the bigger holidays coming my way in the next few months are Passover (which most of you have heard of), Yom Ha-atzmaut (Israeli Independence Day), Lag B'Omer, and Shavuot. Don't even get me started on the holidays in the fall; there is one every other day it seems, so surely the fall will be an exciting time for me to experience life in Israel. I can still remember back in December when we headed to the Dead Sea for the weekend (during Hanukkah) only to find multiple tables set up with nearly 100 menorahs on them being lit by Jewish families in their home away from home (the hotel) for the weekend. Where else in the world can you find this? Nowhere! How can you not enjoy the sense of connection that you feel in Israel due to the excitement and energy that can be found all around you during a celebration?! It's impossible not to! Thus, here I am, finding myself counting down to the very next holiday. Such celebrations make me feel alive and are the reason I've picked it as the number one thing that I love about this country! Nowhere else in the world will you find the Jewish traditions and practices so alive and intact. It makes you feel rooted in history as the traditions come alive before your eyes.
Hopefully now I've been able to balance out my previous post (regarding the Top 10 Things That Drive Me Crazy Here in Israel) by writing this current post; and although I've shown you that indeed there's a lot I'm frustrated by here, there's also clearly a whole lot to love. I hope each and every one of you will have a chance to see for yourself the unique features which compose this fascinating country!