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Home > Israel > Only in Israel

Only in Israel
Ironies add touch of humor, sadness

Jewish Bulletin of Northern California
December 18, 2000

SAN FRANCISCO—On its flights between Newark, N.J., and Israel, Continental Airlines has individual televisions on the back of every seat. One of the channels offers programming from an Israeli television station, including: "Mi Rotzeh Lehiyot Millionaire?" (No translation necessary.)

The set and music are just like the American version, and a contestant from Jerusalem is in the hot seat. The question: Deheisha is next to: a) Ramallah b) Jericho c) Nablus d) Bethlehem.

The contestant doesn't know which city the Palestinian refugee camp is near. He phones a friend, who also doesn't know. He requests 50-50. He gets it right.


Only on flights to Israel could the following sign be useful: "Bathrooms temporarily unavailable; minyan in progress."

Just landed in Israel, I get my initiation in the mood of the country on the sherut (shared cab) from the airport to the hotel. The driver, with whom I've been chatting a bit after he drops everyone else off, asks where I've learned Hebrew.

"Here," I say. He asks whether I live here, and I say no, but at one time, I had wanted to make aliyah, and I learned Hebrew on a kibbutz.

For as long as I've been coming to Israel, practically every cab driver I've ever encountered has made an impassioned plea for me to stay. Why would I choose to live in the diaspora when I can live in Eretz Yisrael, I was asked again and again.

This time, the driver says, "You returned to the United States because you didn't want to put up with all the nonsense here."

For the first time ever, I don't have to justify my choice to live in the diaspora to a cab driver. It truly seems like an end-of-an-era statement.


Col. Shalom Harari, a former adviser on Palestinian affairs to both Prime Ministers Yitzhak Rabin and Ehud Barak, is lecturing two solidarity mission groups about the current situation. His generalizations about the Arabs, both Palestinian and inside Israel, make some members of the group somewhat uncomfortable. He says things along the lines of they can no longer be trusted.

The projector is having some technical difficulties. "Israeli high-tech," Harari smirks. An employee of the hotel enters the room, and Harari asks for help. Breaking from his lecture on the Arab enemy, he addresses the hotel employee.

"Smach li," he says (excuse me). The problem fixed, Harari thanks the employee, saying "Shukran," and continues lecturing, not stopping to reflect on the irony of the situation: interrupting his somewhat anti-Arab sentiments to ask help from an Arab in Arabic.


The group is waiting to go through security in front of the Knesset. A petite, perfectly coiffed woman comes out with a few people, and unable to pass, starts extending her hand to whoever will take it, assuming that everyone knows who she is. A few people recognize her; she is Esther Jungreis, a well-known Orthodox personality who gives lectures to singles in New York. She doesn't seem to notice that many of those shaking her hand have no idea who she is.


After the first full day of the mission, which is incredibly long and tiring, the group returns to the hotel.

I've been taking copious notes all day, and now must write my first article and e-mail it back to the Bulletin.

While I am the first to admit my many personality deficiencies, flakiness is not one of them. Yet when someone tries to give me one last quote, I realize my notebook is not in my backpack; I must have left it in the restaurant.

I panic. I run outside the hotel, to find the guide, Natan, waiting for a cab. I explain the situation, and he agrees to drop me off at the restaurant on his way home, but a taxi doesn't show up immediately. Meanwhile, we try to call the restaurant on a cell phone, but the line is busy.

Finally, a cab pulls up, and we return to the restaurant. I run the last few steps inside. The waiters are cleaning up, and when they see me, they begin to laugh. "We were just talking about you," they say. "We saw you writing and writing all night, and then you leave your notebook here."

Greatly relieved, I return to the hotel, write my story and send it in. In the morning, Natan, the guide, checks in with me to make sure everything turned out OK.

"No problem," I say.

"See?" he says. "We have no problems in Israel."


The slogan announcing the political campaign of Ariel Sharon: "Sharon Achshav." (Sharon Now," a play on "Shalom Achshav," Peace Now.)


The group is at a rest stop on the second day. Participants are told they have exactly 8-1/2 minutes to take care of business because they are already running late. They go into a mall and head straight for the bathrooms.

Another group has beaten them there and there is a long line for the ladies' room.

One male group member, seeing that the men's room has stalls in addition to urinals, motions at the women in line to come into the men's room. They do, and the male group members laugh good-naturedly about sharing the bathroom.

The same cannot be said for a few soldiers who enter. They are outnumbered so they put up with it, but it's clear they are not amused.

After this occurrence, Natan, the guide, informs the group that Knesset member Naomi Chazan, who had made an impassioned plea for peace to the group the previous day, had been the prime sponsor of a bill requiring that every new public building have twice as many women's facilities as men's. It was recently enacted.


Up north, the group is joined by four Bay Area participants in the Otzma program, who have just arrived in the region. The four have been in Israel several months already, and have become acclimated to Israeli society, as is evident by the cell phones they all have. One, Mike Claremon from Sacramento, gives a little shpiel while on the bus about how recent events have impacted those on the yearlong program.

"There's been definite concern from the parents," he said. "A few people went home, but almost all of them have come back." Nevertheless, added, "Some are turning down substantial bribes to come home."


After visiting an Israeli Arab community center in Haifa, the group is en route to the center of town. A few Israeli Arab teenagers from the center have joined the group on the bus. Yasmeen, a striking 15-year-old, is sitting next to me. We speak a combination of Hebrew and English.

I tell her that I think it is a good thing that the Arabs in Israel feel comfortable telling us, a group of visiting Jews, about the problems they have living in Israel. She agrees.

"Do you know any Jews?" I ask her, knowing what the answer will be.

"No," she answers.

"Even from the center?"


"That's sad," I say.

"Yes," she says.

Even in Haifa, the city held up as a model for coexistence, she says,

"It's life here. We don't have any

chances to meet each other."


The group visits a high school in Hadera; 30 percent of the students are new immigrants from Ethiopia and the former Soviet Union. It's one of those places that is meant to get the old Zionist juices pumping. Group members split up and enter various classrooms to chat with the students.

Mark Schickman of Berkeley is struck by a conversation he has with some of the students. He asks them what should be done about the Palestinians. Simultaneously, one says, "Close the border" and the other says, "Make peace."


Throughout the journey, mission participants have been encouraged to take the microphone during travel time on the bus, to share with the group their thoughts and impressions. They do, in a serious manner. Irwin Bear of Burlingame takes the mike on the last day. He begins a long synopsis of the meals, most specifically, the lunch just eaten.

Listed as a "light lunch" on the itinerary, the plates came at a rapid pace, starting with several kinds of salads, moving on to several large plates of pasta, including two with heavy cream sauce, and lastly, several plates of ice cream for dessert.

"Ever since I came to Israel for the first time, I've become a devotee of chopped salad," Bear begins.

Continuing on about the differences between an Israeli and American menu, and saying that there was a bit too much hummus on the trip for his liking, Bear says, "Lunch today capped it all." Each time he thought they were finished, another course, heavier than the last, came out.

Joyce Rifkind of San Rafael says her cappuccino was at least one-third cream, and it made her feel like she was in Italy.


No doubt, Israel is the only country in the world where within a few feet you see a poster advertising a trance party, (in American parlance, a "rave") and electric signs on opposite sides of the street: One advertises the new Ben Affleck-Gwyneth Paltrow film; the other tells people to prepare themselves, Moshiach (the Messiah) is coming.


One of the last images in my mind from this trip: My last afternoon in Israel, I am in Tel Aviv sitting on the sand facing the Mediterranean, a few feet from the ocean, reading the newspaper. The sun is shining, the weather is perfect and I could even be in my bathing suit, except that I didn't bring it. The beach and the boardwalk alongside are probably more deserted than I've ever seen them.

On my left side, a group of Thai workers sing Thai songs and drink beer. On my right, a bearded guy strips down to nothing and jumps into the sea. When he emerges, he dries off, drapes a towel around his waist and starts doing tai chi (I assume) movements on the sand.

The writer was in Israel recently on a mission sponsored by the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation.

©, 2000. May not be reproduced without written permission.

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