Isn’t it so that we yell the most at the people we love? We shout at siblings, trade ear-splitting screams with spouses. I would never harangue a stranger as I do my brother, or my best friend. No, with strangers we grit our teeth and shake our heads. We try to keep cool. It’s as if you need to know someone to let them under your skin. You need to care for them to express your anger organically.
Of course, I’m speaking in general terms. Individuals manage conflict differently. So too do communities, cities and countries. I lived in Vancouver, BC for the last five years. There, I witnessed first hand the material basis for far too many bad jokes about Canadian politeness. Yes, we say thank you to the bus driver. We hold doors open and say “sawrry”. We certainly don’t yell.
Three weeks ago I moved to Tel-Aviv, Israel. People are different. Politeness is not the Israeli way. Busy waitresses glare angrily at their expectant patrons. People push and shove to get on the bus. Lines do not exist. Once, in “line” at the pharmacy, an emboldened woman skipped past me and a friend with such blatant disregard that I instinctively shouted, in Hebrew, “Wait!”.
I caught myself and added, “please.” She spun around, sized me up, tsked, and paid for her shampoo.
Israel is a country of yellers—all types of them. Shopkeepers in the market shout out their ever-changing prices. Construction workers compete with their power tools for volume control. Often, for no apparent reason, other people just yell.
I was in line once for a bowl of hummus. The woman in front of me got distracted on her iPhone right as the counter-worker asked for her order.
“Lady” he said once. She didn’t respond. He repeated himself with oomph. She was glued to the screen. The third time, he slapped his palms down on the glass counter, stuck his nose six inches from hers and bellowed: “Lady!” She looked up, startled, and ordered her hummus.
Outside my apartment, a young woman had parked her car in a designated bus zone. A woman, perhaps fifty years her elder, knocked on the window and gestured to the bus-stop. The younger woman ignored her. Instant rage ensued. The elderly lady began to howl. She was gesticulating madly, banging on the car window with her palm. With a face of indignation, the younger woman finally acknowledged her aggressor. She slid down her automatic window. Only then, instead of engaging, she extended her pointer finger, and pressed it slowly against her glossy red lips: “Shhh.”
When I get tired of studying Hebrew, I think back to that moment for inspiration. How I wished I could have yelled at the driver too.
Israelis are the first to admit to these frustrating qualities. They are rude and impatient. They have little respect for basic social order. Yet what they lack in manners—as they will also tell you—they make up for in compassion.
On Fridays, I see men bring whole loaves of bread to homeless people. They squat down, lay a tender arm around the shoulder, and offer one of many loaves from a large plastic bag.
I once saw a man with a limp struggling to board the bus. From across the street came running a stranger—dodging traffic in his best Frogger impersonation—who grabbed the man at the waist and hoisted him onto the bus.
Two girls I know once rented a car and drove it into Israel’s Northern hills. The car broke down. It took an hour for the tow truck driver to show up. He took pity on the helpless girls and invited them to his home where his wife made sandwiches as he tinkered with their car in his garage.
By no means do my anecdotes suggest that the country is filled with universal amity. For every person bearing bread, there are hundreds more who look past the suffering. They choose not to see and spare not a coin. Israel suffers from the same harsh realities as all countries: inequality, racism, crime. This is not to mention, of course, the never-ending Palestinian conflict.
All of this aside, for now. Allow me to tell one more story. It is about my mother. While pregnant with me, she had to fly to Toronto for a family emergency. My brother was two, my sister four. Everything was going wrong. My mom was late. She couldn’t find her boarding pass. My siblings weren’t cooperating. I was kicking in her belly. She finally made it through security, and as she began speed-walking to her gate, she dropped a bag and all its contents spilled out. She sat down, my sister wailing, my brother running in circles, and tried to collect her things. Not a soul came to her aid.
This, simply, would not happen in Ben-Gurion airport. It would not happen in the mall, even if we replace my mother with an average shopper who dropped their bags. There is a culture of care here. There is palpable intimacy—from the straight men who greet each other with kisses on the cheek, to the strangers who stick a leash in your hand without asking and tell you to watch their dog.
No one will joke about Israelis being too nice. The country and people are frustrating. The social norms are exhausting. I’d much prefer to wait in line than to constantly fight for position. But I’ll take openly ugly over superficially beautiful. I’ll take disrespectful attentiveness over ultra-polite apathy. And I’ll take a verbal lashing any day of the week if it means that someone cares, if it means that someone will help my mom in the airport.