Citizens of the Same Family

It finally makes sense. After months of traveling in the East with an Israeli and being witness to the very low social boundaries Israelis have with one another, it finally makes sense. No matter where they are or whether they … Read More

By / October 25, 2009

It finally makes sense. After months of traveling in the East with an Israeli and being witness to the very low social boundaries Israelis have with one another, it finally makes sense.

No matter where they are or whether they know each other, Israelis greet one another as old friends and break into full conversation within minutes about whatever is relevant. If we happened to be in Vietnam, the conversation would be about which guest house was the best and least expensive. If we were in Australia, perhaps advice would be dispensed about which caravan park had the nicest kitchen or which company offered the best dives. As an American in these dialogues, I smiled, tried to understand the conversation, and then usually zoned out. I was always aware, though, that Israelis claim ownership to something English speakers and people from most other languages do not; because Hebrew is spoken by so few in the world, when you happen upon a Hebrew speaker outside of Israel, brotherhood is immediate and unquestioning.

On a particularly hot day in November in Cairns (northeastern Australia), Oded and I decided to check out the public lagoon in the center of the city. Upon arriving in Cairns, we couldn’t help but notice the lagoon, a large swimming pool type arrangement adjacent to the shore. It was open to the public and free, a perfect way for two poor travelers to waste the day. We made our way from the sandy concrete to the center of the lagoon, only waist deep in water. We swam, relaxed, floated, and inevitably heard Hebrew. Oded swam closer and with nothing more than an, “Alan, ma koreh?” we had a new friend and were cooking dinner and drinking beers in Uzi’s guest house hours later. We spent a few days with Uzi and his friends before moving on north and west. More than a month later, we walked into a backpacker in Sydney, and there sat Uzi. The reunion was that of old friends, replete with hugs, kisses and stories of where we had all been the last weeks. If Oded and Uzi were replaced in this scenario with two Americans, say Mark and Greg, this meeting would look very different or not at all. They would most likely never approach each other, and for good reasons. First, most Americans never take a trip like this and therefore would never even be in this situation. Next, English is not a rare commodity and does not serve to connect its speakers. Most importantly and the reason for this examination, is why Americans, and I venture most other nationalities, do not create the same connections as Israelis.

The answer to my question arrived on my ninth trip to Israel, a trip that less resembles a vacation and more a permanent residence. After a six month reprieve in Boston, I am once again gone from the US and have moved up and on from my backpack to a lovely apartment in Ramat HaSharon. We now live in Oded’s family’s apartment, to be exact, and one that I am now to think of as my own. It is this apartment and its surrounding area that answered my question for me. Oded’s family lives in a two level apartment with four bedrooms, two and a half baths and a considerable amount of common space. The street is lined with buildings just like this one that house apartments of roughly the same size.  Oded has spent his entire life in a similarly sized space in this exact neighborhood. The streets are lined with parks, cafes and an absurd amount of hair salons. Due to the almost always warm weather, windows are open to the street in an omnipresent theater of life. Everything from fights and family meals to television and love making are part of the daily sounds of the street. Not only can you hear, but often you can see as well. The apartments are in every way equipped for life, but I imagine they seem small after a while. The natural outgrowth of not enough privacy is a cafe culture, a place where the dramas of life are again played out in the street.

In America, or at least in my America and not that of the Lower East Side in the early twentieth century, a significant amount of Americans live in homes that are not connected to other buildings. These homes are built to keep noise, heat, and family secrets in, rather than hanging them out with the wash. For better or worse, these homes produced Americans who are quiet, reserved and keep to themselves. At least until they break free from suburban American and move into their freshmen dorm or their first apartment building and their concepts of privacy and decency are blown. But as these episodes of communal living do not last forever, and many find their way back out to the land of cul de sacs and lawn mowers, Americans maintain on some level their ability to disengage from daily interactions and the closeness created in the warm apartments and open cafes of Tel Aviv.

In conclusion, and after many months of watching my beloved greet strangers on foreign avenues around the world as if they were long lost friends, I finally understand perhaps one of the reasons that Israelis are why they are the way they are. Put aside all of the politics, the religion, the neighbors and think instead on the proximity of apartments, the climate and the ensuing culture and you find a people who are less like citizens of a nation and more like an extended family.