Sunday, July 10, 2022

We are not in Kansas anymore – Why Israel is different and worth visiting


[Footprints in the beach*]

Each country has its unique footprint, its identifying features. While residents may have ceased to notice or may have never paid attention to them, tourists immediately observe these striking aspects of daily life and appreciate them to various degrees. These differences can be audio, visual or just an undefined feel. Whether different is better or worse is a matter of taste but, in the case of Israel at least, it makes a trip to the country an unforgettable experience.

[People talking]
Israel is a loud country. I suppose the whole Mediterranean world speaks loud but Israelis are known (or infamous) for talking loud and with great energy. From the time travelers get on plane to fly to Israel to the eventual return to their homeland, about the only quiet place is the hotel room. The vocal excitement can express joy, anger or absolutely nothing but it does create a feeling of life, albeit occasionally a bit too much. Happily, within a short time, normal volume is reset to local conditions.

[symphony music sheets]

Of course, the voices may sound like a cacophony for some people but for those that enjoy foreign languages, it is a symphony. In the street or a restaurant, residents, not only visitors, may be gabbing away in Hebrew, Arabic, English, Russian, Moroccan, Romanian, French, Yiddish and Spanish, to name a few. True, they are generally complaining about personal or public matters, but they are doing it in Tower of Babel fashion. One of my first memories in Israel was the joy of listening to the almost joyful multilingual complaints about the line in the post office. Alas, that pleasure has been usurped by the use of an online application to schedule an appointment. Still, for those that enjoy the orchestra of sounds that languages create, Israel is a Shangri-La.

[Fingers on a map]

Fortunately for tourists and many locals, the vast majority of Israelis not only speak English but do it well. As compared to the linguistic desert of Spain, France and Italy, Israelis study English and truly enjoy speaking it. Even taxi drivers and waitresses can converse effectively if not quite grammatically in English. I suppose it may be because Israelis understand that Hebrew is not a very useful international language outside  of New York, Los Angeles and parts of Turkey and Thailand. By the way, Icelanders also speak rather good English, probably for the same reason. This means that tourists can travel anywhere in Israel comfortably without stress, aside from the insanity of the drivers of course, with full comprehension and receive meaningful answers from most bystanders and service people. They will also encourage you to try your Arabic or Hebrew. Israel is an easy place to travel in terms of language.

[Security person]

For those more visually acute, one of the most striking elements is the ever-present security. Israel is not China, which has security people with various colored uniforms everywhere but their primary purpose is watch its own citizens. Israeli security is against terrorism and is expressed by the mandatory presence at the entrance of every public building of a security guard, who does not seem to be paying much attention as he checks bags. Appearances can be deceiving as most of these guards have served in the army and actually know what to do in an emergency. As unfortunately shit does happen occasionally in Israel, it is reassuring but initially a bit shocking to see that an armed guard is never far away.

[Man with Uzi]

On the subject of arms, my late father, who served in World War II, was shocked by the number of guns he saw. To clarify, a careful observer on a routine walk through any Israel city will notice quite a number of M-16s, Uzis and pistol discretely or not so discretely being carried, especially on Sundays and Fridays, when soldiers travel. There is no need to worry – this is not Texas. The security check for receiving a gun is rather rigorous and requires training how to use them. In fact, there are have almost no mass shootings of the non-terrorist variety. After a while, residents stop noticing them.

[Children on trampoline]

Israel is a small, family-oriented country. That means someone is always keeping their eyes on unescorted children. It is interesting to watch what happens when a children wander away from the parents: countless pairs of eyes watch and consider if and when to intervene to prevent any harm. For that matter, Israelis are very caring for any stranger that needs help in the streets, such as falling down or fainting. Hopefully, tourists won’t experience this positive side of Israelis but crises bring out their best side.

[Guest relation sign]

Israeli hotels have some unique features due to their clientele. A significant segment of their customers is religiously observant to one degree or another. This means that all large hotels have a synagogue to allow its religious guests easy access to prayers. I have never a seen a hotel in the Europe or the United States with a chapel but I may be wrong. Furthermore, no hotel will serve pork as it is proscribed by Judaism and Islam. Finally, due to Shabbat observance, the room service on Saturday is limited to food that can be prepared before Friday night. That means no expresso in some hotels on Saturday. Many hotels do not want alienate their observant guests.


On the subject of Saturday, the Sabbath shapes Israel, albeit not always as the religious would like. First, most stores close on Friday around 14:00 as the Sabbath begins on Friday nights, which can as early as around 16:00 in January. The traffic thus starts to thin out as Shabbat appears. I would say business slows down but nothing is simple in the Holy Land. In practice, shabbat means different things to different people. For the observant, it means no electrical devices, prayer, rest and eating (a bit too much of the latter in my experience). For others, it is time to get into the car and enjoy the weekend with the family, which can make Saturday far from a day of rest. For some businesses, such as restaurants, tourist-related services and shops in outside malls, the Sabbath is a goldmine of opportunity. Regardless of the manner of celebrating it, Saturday does not feel like a normal week day. I strongly suggest taking a walk and trying to sense shabbat in all its glories.

[Plethora of fruits]

To be fair, as a multiethnic society, it is also possible and advisable to visit Muslim, Christian, Druze communities as well as kibbutzim and moshav (communal settlements) with unique life styles, including vegetarian and TM. Israel is a mosaic of communities. In this sense, the sheer variety of Israels defines Israel.

[Map with Jersualem as center]

Regarding religion, there is no denying that there is a spiritual aspect to Israel beyond all the noise and color. For Jews, it is the source for many religious people but even the most non-religious notice that  somehow being Jewish takes no effort in Israel. Christians revel in following the footsteps of Jesus and generally do not complain if the “mighty Jordan river” resembles a large stream. Muslims view Jerusalem as one of their centers of faith. The Baha’i have several major and impressive sites here. A person in search of spiritual inspiration will probably find it in Israel.

I have not have heard of anybody that has ever visited Israel and found it routine and boring. Tourists may like or dislike the country but it makes an impression. Its sounds, sights and feel are so different from the vast majority of other countries. Dorothy would know that she had arrived in a different place, no less striking than Oz. Visiting Israel is a special experience.

* Picture captions allow the blind to fully access the Internet.

All pictures through Pixabay.

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