Returning to Israel this past January for the first time in 20 years carried a deep emotional charge for me. After World War II my British-born parents, young Labor-Zionist idealists, helped found a kibbutz in the northern Galilee. I was born there, but we moved back to England when I was seven. I’ve visited and lived in Israel since then, but mostly I’ve been in London and the United States. By most measures, every city in which I’ve put down roots in is an easier place to live than just about anywhere in Israel. I’ve never felt so British as when I’ve struggled to hold my place in what passes in Israel for a queue.
Yet I’ve also pined for the brash, aggressive country I had last seen in the mid-1970s, when public rudeness was a point of pride, when every stranger felt free to get into your business—but would reflexively rescue you in a pinch. In the early 1970s, in a small town north of Tel Aviv, I once fainted from heat and woke up lying on a sidewalk surrounded by a circle of faces, their voices theorizing about why I’d passed out. An old lady who could barely walk insisted on taking me home on the bus, where she barraged me with advice about what she was certain was my pregnancy and broadcast my “joyous news” to the passengers around us.
The noisy, busybody intrusiveness of Israeli public life could be a pain in the neck. But, having spent most of my life in two countries known for their surface good manners, I missed the directness and, sometimes, the rough charm. On a vacation in Tel Aviv in the early 1990s, the airline lost my luggage. I complained to the company’s Israeli representative—who spread his arms wide and answered genially, “Mah haba’aya?” What’s the problem? “Sometimes I don’t change my underwear for a week!”
On my recent two weeks of running around Israel with my 15-year-old daughter, I rarely encountered this kind of brazen chutzpah. The land of pioneering socialism and proliferating red tape has caught on to the capitalist service ethic big time. At the El Al desk at Heathrow Airport, a preternaturally polite young security guy with a mini-Mohawk apologized profusely for having to ask “a lot of questions.” No apologies were necessary: we were a walking red flag. I speak fluent Hebrew but do not carry an Israeli passport. Neither does my daughter—who is Chinese. We get stopped, frisked, grilled, just about fried in every airport we pass through. With courtly politesse, the young man questioned me for 15 minutes—then asked my daughter what her favorite Jewish holiday was. Flustered, she blurted, “Passover!” He said he’d never met a kid whose favorite holiday was Pesach. She shrugged and said she loved matzah ball soup. That did the trick. One more apology, and we were on our way.
And so it went from the moment we landed at Ben Gurion airport, now bustling with souped-up boutiques and fancy eateries. Everywhere—from the posh, scrubbed and renovated Jaffa quarter of Tel Aviv, to a now-privatized Galilee kibbutz whose members own their own homes, to the small town of Rosh Pina, once known as the “armpit of the Middle East” but now a gentrified home to artists, hipsters and nouvelle cuisine restaurateurs—it was please, thank you, can I help you and, to my horror, have a nice day.
When I marveled about this, Israeli friends laughed said that if I wanted to see the old churlishness, I just had to stick around a while. And it’s true that if you know where to look, you’ll still find the old belligerence in abundance, notably in government offices and on public transportation. After we stood in line for nearly two hours at the Jerusalem bus station to reserve our place for a trip to the north, a couple of latecomers elbowed my daughter out of the way and breezed onto the bus without so much as a by-your-leave.
Once in the early 1970s, when I was a graduate student commuting home from Tel Aviv University, I had to duck when two men in coveralls started throwing punches around my head over political differences. It’s not recommended behavior, but I loved that sense of engagement with public life. Israelis may still be great political brawlers, but they don’t seem to talk politics as much as they used to. Politically, our Israeli hosts were all over the map: friends living across the green line in suburban Jerusalem, a woman working for Palestinian rights, Golan kibbutzniks anxious about the Syrian civil war. Yet even with Hamas rocket attacks fresh in memory and national elections imminent, few Israelis seemed interested in political debate beyond laughing their heads off at Eretz Nehederet, “Wonderful Land,” the satirical TV program that skewers corrupt posturing by local politicians and the ridiculous proliferation of tiny political parties on the electoral landscape.
True, as the headlines scream, Israel is polarized these days; and perhaps Israelis are as weary of politics as I am of being the schizoid Israeli-abroad who sounds like Jabotinsky when defending Israel to the hard Left and fiercely criticizes the occupation when debating the hard Right. Neither of these shrieking groups understands that Israelis, in their daily lives, know how to improvise a precarious harmony.
For all the stormy rhetoric, Israel is in some ways more open than ever before. The reflexive homophobia I remember is virtually gone in Tel Aviv, now one of the world’s gay-friendly cities. Jerusalem remains tense, with secular and Orthodox, Jew and Arab viewing each another with suspicion. We stayed in a beautiful guest house run by Christian Arabs; a stone’s throw away, an Old City Arab vendor, ironing a Coca-Cola logo onto a sweatshirt for my daughter, pressed his electric bill into my hand and complained about the high, Israeli-imposed costs of doing business. My friend in the Jerusalem suburb beyond the green line pointed past the electronic security gate to a lone Arab house near a Jewish settlement. Its owner sent his son to the Jewish pre-school. The teachers, worried that the child might suffer because of his name, Mahmood, called him Hamoody. It means “Sweetie.”
On our last night in Tel Aviv, we went to a large Arab-owned seafood restaurant in Jaffa, which has a mixed Jewish-Arab population. Outside, there was a lightning storm; inside, it was warm and festive, with different families sitting together at long tables. I over-eagerly admired the beautiful black-eyed baby of the Arab family next to us. There wasn’t much serious mixing, but there was a willingness to sit courteously side by side, engaging in small talk. Every few minutes a drum roll announced a customer’s birthday. When it did, everyone—everyone—clapped.
It’s not much, but it happens every day, opening a tiny space for light and hope while politicians scream their mutual intransigence. I realized how much I had missed this nervous vitality and rabid self-invention. So, it’s not goodbye but au revoir, Israel. If I ever manage to retire, I’ll come home for good.
Ella Taylor is a freelance arts writer whose film reviews appear regularly at NPR.org and who has contributed to the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times.
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