A travel article in Smithsonian magazine contains some perceptive points about what life in Israel is like. The article isn't about Israel, though. It discusses the behavior of New Yorkers.
The New York City described in this article is strikingly similar to Israel. In the following passage, wherever you see "New Yorkers," imagine that the author has written "Israelis."
It is said that New Yorkers are rude, but I think what people mean by that is that New Yorkers are more familiar. The man who waits on you in the delicatessen is likely to call you sweetheart. (Feminists have gotten used to this.) People on the bus will say, "I have the same handbag as you. How much did you pay?" If they don't like the way you are treating your children, they will tell you. And should you try to cut in front of somebody in the grocery store checkout line, you will be swiftly corrected. My mother, who lives in California, doesn't like to be kept waiting, so when she goes into the bank, she says to the people in the line, "Oh, I have just one little thing to ask the teller. Do you mind?" Then she scoots to the front of the line, takes the next teller and transacts her business, which is typically no briefer than anyone else's. People let her do this because she is an old lady. In New York, she wouldn't get away with it for a second.
While New Yorkers don't mind correcting you, they also want to help you. In the subway or on the sidewalk, when someone asks a passerby for directions, other people, overhearing, may hover nearby, disappointed that they were not the ones asked, and waiting to see if maybe they can get a word in. New Yorkers like to be experts. Actually, all people like to be experts, but most of them satisfy this need with friends and children and employees. New Yorkers, once again, tend to behave with strangers the way they do with people they know.
Everything described above is something I have witnessed in Tel Aviv.
A comment about "sweetheart." In Israel, you may hear people calling one another "motek." This is a unisex term of familiarity, meaning "sweet one" in Hebrew. If you say "motek" to someone of the same or opposite sex, it doesn't necessarily convey flirtation or sexist overtones. You can hear "sweetheart" used the same way in New York.
Where do the similar behaviors in Israel and New York come from? Is it a Jewish thing? New York is sometimes seen, erroneously, as a city of Jews. It does have more Jewish residents than Tel Aviv. People who don't like Jews have long used the label "New York" as a pejorative synonym for things Jewish. The city has become a magnet for Israeli expatriates and Hebrew-speaking tourists. Sayed Kashua, a Haaretz columnist, was in Manhattan a few weeks ago and wrote, "I heard more Hebrew on the Upper West Side than I do in Jerusalem."
The Smithsonian piece does not even hint that there are Jews in New York. Its writer, Joan Acocella, a gifted essayist and critic, cites various factors to explain why New Yorkers behave as they do. She suggests that two reasons may be the difficulties of everyday life in the city, and the awareness of a shared plight. She writes, "When New Yorkers see a stranger, they don't think, 'I don't know you.' They think, 'I know you. I know your problems---they're the same as mine---and furthermore we have the same handbag.' So that's how they treat you." That observation could apply equally to Israelis.
Acocella points out: "The majority of people who live in New York City were not born here. Indeed, more than a third were not born in the United States." Thus, New Yorkers "are people who left another place and came here, looking for something, which suggests that the population is preselected for higher energy and ambition."
These New York data also bear a similarity to Tel Aviv, and to Israel in general. More than 30 percent of the Jews in Israel and also in the Tel Aviv area were born abroad. Tel Aviv, like New York, is a commercial and cultural center that attracts people loaded with energy and ambition. In 2006, the most recent year for which data are available, one of every 20 people in Tel Aviv had moved here less than 12 months earlier.
This raises another question: If the behavior of New Yorkers isn't particularly Jewish, what is it that causes Jews in Israel to behave like New Yorkers? The answer may lie in the old dictum that Jews are just like everyone else, only moreso.
---Joseph M. Hochstein, Tel Aviv
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