How to tell if you're Israeli-Jewish
by Alon Levy
Another response to my How to Tell If You're American page.
Alon Levy is a mathematician, who blogs about public transportation at Pedestrian Observations, and has lived in many countries. He grew up in Israel, went to school in Singapore and the US, and has more recently lived in Canada and Sweden.
If you're Israeli-Jewish…
- You're familiar with Israeli localizations of many popular international shows: Sesame Street, Wheel of Fortune, Who Wants to be a Millionaire?, Big Brother, ___ Idol. You think those localizations are a lot more similar to the original than they actually are — for example, it will surprise you to hear that the original has Big Bird.
- You're familiar with the most popular American TV shows: Friends, Married With Children, Seinfeld, Everybody Loves Raymond, ER, House. If you're upper middle-class or richer, you think British shows are better, but still watch American ones. If you're in the correct age range, about 20-35, you're familiar with Chiquititas, Rebelde, Three Thousand Leagues in Search of Mother (which you call The Heart), and Hélène et les Garçons (which you call Helene's Friends). Other than The Heart and Pokémon, it's unlikely you've watched any anime.
- Comedy is extremely irreverent. You mock Americans for being so politically correct. Any ethnic group, regardless of you're a member, is a good source of jokes, and if someone calls you a racist for mocking foreign accents, you'll be upset. The Holocaust is another source of jokes, including some that in Europe are only told by neo-Nazis.
- You watch Eurovision. Every year you hope Israel will win, which it sometimes does.
- Everyone uses Facebook, for everything, and often sets their permissions to public. Public figures use it to connect with supporters, politicians use it to announce policies, activists use it to spread information about protests and troll opposing politicians' pages, communities use Facebook groups as their message boards, and people brag about the number of likes their statuses and comments get. Everyone uses WhatsApp, and communicates with their friends and coworkers in WhatsApp groups, including public figures. Few people use Twitter. Nobody uses Tencent QQ or Qzone.
- You know how soccer is played. You call it kaduregel (kadur = ball, regel = foot/leg), and borrow the English word football for the American sport. You almost certainly also know how basketball is played. If you're male, you can argue intricate points about the rules of both basketball and soccer.
- In basketball, Maccabi Tel Aviv almost always wins so you probably care about the Euroleague more than the domestic league — unless you're a dedicated fan of another club, you'll cheer if Maccabi Tel Aviv wins the European championship, which it often does.
- Sports teams tend to be named after a sports club (usually Maccabi, Hapoel, or Beitar) and the city. The decision for which club to support is often political: Beitar descends from the forerunners of Likud, and Hapoel ("The Worker") from Labor, and Beitar Jerusalem is strongly identified with working-class right-wing politics. If you're a centrist or a leftist, you think Beitar fans are thugs.
- Your national team made the World Cup, once, and busted out in the group stage. If you're male, it's likely that every two years you watch the World Cup and Euro qualifiers hoping Israel makes it, which it never does.
- You think of McDonald's as American food, neither particularly cheap nor particularly expensive. You probably think local fast food — shawarma, falafel, hummus, sabich — is better.
- You do not consider dogs, cats, or insects to be food, and think it's awful that Thai migrant workers do. Unless you're completely secular, you don't eat pork or shellfish, so most of the time, the meat you eat is just beef, chicken, and lamb. If you're older, you associate poverty with not being able to afford meat.
- If you're younger and left-of-center, it's likely that you think all good people should be vegans, and if you don't, it's likely you feel guilty about eating meat. If you're right-of-center, older, or just don't care much for veganism, you probably think vegans are annoying assholes.
- You're probably somewhat traditional. You think of people who wear yarmulkes or head coverings as "the religious people," unless you're one of them, and then you think everyone who's more secular than you is "the secular people."
- You find the idea of driving on Yom Kippur unthinkable. Even if you're completely secular, driving is out of the question on that day; riding a bike on the vehicle-free streets will be your nod to public celebration of the day. If you’re super-secular, you’ll plan a festive meal you'll merely ride a bike; if you're even somewhat traditional, you’ll probably fast, avoid public biking, and may attend a synagogue for part of the day
- You know what religion you practice (if any) and what religion the government considers you to be affiliated with. If your mother was insufficiently Jewish by government standards, you may be registered as having no religion. This will make it harder for you to get married.
- Inside Israel, you can only be married in a religious ceremony, to another Jew. The courts recognize foreign marriages as a compromise (including gay marriages performed in countries where they're legal); some secular people get married abroad, especially in Cyprus, to avoid dealing with religious weddings. To get married locally, you will need a rabbi, who will usually demand a bribe, and, unless you're very religious, shame you for not being religious enough.
- Regardless of how you got married, if you want to get divorced, you'll have to go through a religious court. According to rabbinical law, the husband must consent to a divorce (it's called a get), and the courts may not compel him to consent, only impose penalties if he doesn't.
- You think Reform and Conservative Judaisms aren't really Judaism.
- The Bible is, of course, the Hebrew Bible. You've read a lot of it even if you're completely nonreligious (it's mandatory in school from grades 2 to 12), but unless you're religious, or working-class and went to a school run by Shas, you haven't read much if any Talmud.
- If you've met American Jews, you find their customs strange and assimilated.
- You know that Arabs in Israel are either Muslim (most) or Christian (a minority), but don't know much about their religious practices beyond that. You could not name what denominations most of the Christians are (Greek Orthodox, or Eastern Catholic). What you know of Christianity, you got from American media. It's very unlikely you've read any of the New Testament or the Qur’an. You will still tell Europeans you know all about Muslims because there are so many in Israel.
- If you're middle-class or richer and are not Haredi yourself, you think the Haredim are destroying the country with their large families, lifelong yeshiva studies, low employment rates and incomes, high welfare claims, and lack of military service.
- If male, you are circumcised. You think the idea that circumcision is bad is anti-Semitic.
- If a man has sex with another man, or a woman with another woman, they're homosexual. If you're secular, you don't mind very much, and are proud that Israel is so gay-friendly (but would still make homophobic jokes); if you're religious, you think it's an abomination.
- You probably live in an apartment, and probably own it. You think a single-family house is aspirational, but at the same time you think high-rise towers are for rich people in North Tel Aviv.
- You own a television, a computer, a refrigerator, and a cellphone. Your place has its own bathroom and shower. You do your laundry in a machine. You don't kill your own food. You eat at a table, sitting on chairs. Your floor and walls are made of cinderblock, and you probably have a balcony that you've enclosed with ugly plastic shutters to provide more interior space.
- You probably don't have central heating, since the winters are mild — if you heat at all, you'll use an air conditioner set to heat or an electric space heater next to your bed. You probably have air conditioning and cannot imagine summer without it.
- If you're working class, you don't own a car, but consider owning one to be aspirational — you can't really cope without one given how terrible public transportation is. The trains catch fire!
- You work 5.5 days a week, and consider working only 5 days a week to be somewhat of a novelty.
- You do not expect unemployment and inflation to both be very high, say more than 10%. There was hyperinflation thirty years ago, which gave everyone with a mortgage a free apartment; since then, all debts and most savings have been indexed.
- You think dying at 65 would be a tragedy. You have universal health care, but probably couldn't name the prime ministerial administration that passed it (Rabin II). You think the public health care system is unsanitary, slow, inefficient, underfunded, and generally terrible.
- You were born in a hospital, delivered by a midwife, under the supervision of a doctor.
- You constantly compare living standards to Europe and North America, and find Israel deficient in virtually every way. But you're also proud that Israel didn't really experience the financial crisis in 2008. Whether you think more about the lower living standards or about the recession avoidance depends a lot on where you are on the left-right spectrum.
- As a vestige of socialism, agriculture is done in collectives, called kibbutzim and moshavim. You almost certainly aren't a farmer, and resent the social and economic privileges the kibbutzim and moshavim have.
- You can conduct business and deal with government agencies without paying bribes. But it helps if you know the clerk you're dealing with, or if you know someone who knows the clerk; it would smooth the process of getting permits or avoiding fees.
- If you're late on a payment, even if it was sent to a previous address through no fault of your own, the collection agency can freeze your bank accounts without notice. If you’re heavily in debt, you can be put in prison. This used to happen a lot, but has become much rarer since a 1993 High Court of Justice ruling.
Race and Ethnicity
- Israel is a multiethnic country, consisting of Jews from all backgrounds. It's also 20% Arab; unless you live in one of the few mixed cities, you don't think about Arabs much, and have no Arab friends. Unless you're on the far left, you think it's natural that Israel should be a Jewish state.
- You say Moroccans when you mean Moroccan Jews in Israel, and the same holds for Iraqis, Poles, Romanians, Ethiopians, Lithuanians, and (Soviet) Russians. Germans are an exception: when you talk about Germans you mean the non-Jewish ones in Germany; the German Jews you call Yekkes.
- If you're Russian or Mizrahi, you harbor some resentment toward the Ashkenazi hegemony. If you're educated Russian, you're probably perfectly integrated into the mainstream, but still harbor some resentment. If you're educated Mizrahi, you're somewhat integrated, and may complain loudly about Ashkenazi privileges and racism and about Russians being Ashkenazi. If you're Ashkenazi, you think Mizrahi and Russian people are whiners.
- You don't care who your relatives marry, as long as they're Jewish (or maybe white Christians from the US or the nicer parts of Europe). You think the extreme right-wingers who protest at mixed marriages are thugs, but would not want your female relatives to marry Arabs. If your relatives marry down the ethnic hierarchy, e.g. anyone marrying an Ethiopian, or an Ashkenazi marrying a Mizrahi, you won't say anything to their faces, but might say "oh, he's one of the good ones," or make subtly disparaging comments.
- There are black refugees in South Tel Aviv. If you're on the center or right, you think they're work migrants who should be deported. If you're on the left, you think they're a terrible social problem and it's unfair they're all in one traditionally-Mizrahi neighborhood, and should be dispersed nationwide; you've heard of a few people who want them to stay where they are, and think those people are callous and don't care about the neighborhood's longstanding residents.
- Mizrahis mock Ashkenazis for being cold and distant, and somewhat less mockingly, Ashkenazis think Mizrahis are very warm and familiar. If you're Ashkenazi and you're talking to someone, you'll be uncomfortable if they approach closer than about a meter; if you're Mizrahi, you'll be uncomfortable if they keep a distance of more than about half a meter.
- You believe there’s an essential, real difference between Jews and non-Jews. If you're science-minded, you think it’s genetic; if you’re more spiritual, you believe there’s a Jewish soul that you’re either born with or you're not. Converting to Judaism can only happen if you already have that Jewish soul.
- There's a left, a center, and a right. Nowadays, the left is ineffectual and never wins, but back in the day, it was much more powerful. The distinction today is less about socioeconomics and more about one's attitude toward the Palestinians.
- You find a multiparty system natural. How else could you express your preference for Mizrahi ultra-Orthodox politics (Shas), or New Left Zionism (Meretz), or secular right-wing nationalism (Yisrael Beitenu)?
- There's a new major center party every election cycle or two: the Center Party ('99), Shinui ('99, '03), Gil ('06), Kadima ('06, '09), Hatnua ('13), Yesh Atid ('13, '15) and now Kulanu ('15). Unless you vote for these parties, you shake your head at them, especially Yesh Atid's leader, Yair Lapid — if you didn't vote for him, you think he is ridiculous and stupid.
- If you're a feminist or Orthodox, you think pornography, sex work, and surrogate motherhood are evil.
- You think the rest of the world criticizes Israel too much and needs to criticize Muslims more, or focus on its own internal problems. The only reason this could be is anti-Semitism — there's no other reason to focus on Israel so much.
- You expect all parties to be Zionist, and responsive to the social concerns of the poor people of your own ethnic group. But you think socialism is outdated.
- Everybody knows the courts are run by leftists who won't let the Knesset and the military do their job.
- The military is extremely important. Unless you're Haredi, you won't vote for a party headed by politicians who didn't serve. Service in an elite unit is a huge bonus for one's political career. Most IDF chiefs of staff join politics after they leave the military, and some become ministers of defense or prime ministers.
- You think your kind isn't being listened enough to in the government.
- You think most problems would be solved if only there were a strong leader who could bash people's heads together and force them to put aside their differences.
- Everybody knows the UN is a ridiculous, anti-Semitic organization that puts Qaddafi's Libya on a human rights council.
- You think Israeli culture is unique in that it has to deal with so much terrorism. But at the same time, you obsessively compare Israel to the rest of the developed world on various metrics of political and economic success, to either justify or attack the government. For example, you think whatever injustices Israel may have done to the Arabs are no big deal, because look at what the US did to the Indians.
- A 50% income tax rate is reasonable, but you're not paying it because you're not that rich. You worry mainly about the VAT, currently 18%, which politicians raise and cut based on their whims.
- You think that populism is a bad thing, and that all political parties except the one you voted for are populist.
- If a politician cheats on his wife, it's normal politics. You only start judging when a president rapes women, or when an interior minister or former prime minister gets sent to jail for corruption.
- Of course the mayor’s being investigated for corruption. They all are. Usually they take turns, but a couple years ago there were nearly ten investigations simultaneously. Sometimes there are even convictions, especially for Mizrahi mayors.
- If you're Ashkenazi, it's very likely you have a second passport, issued by a European country one of your grandparents came from. If you're not, and you're left-of-center, you may consider a foreign passport aspirational. The city you're most likely to want to move to outside Israel is Berlin. If you're on the center or right, you think many leftists are traitors who want to leave the country, and if you're also Mizrahi or Russian, you think it's because they're condescending Ashkenazis.
- Your country is in control of territories that aren't really part of it. There are settlements, which the government subsidizes. If you're not a settler, and are not right-wing, you think the settlements are a waste of money. If you are right-wing, you think the settlements are part of the mission of settling the entire Land of Israel.
- If you're on the center or left, you want some two-state solution, but think the Palestinians are whiners and terrorists.
- Some of Israel's Arab citizens identify as Palestinians, which you find threatening and refuse to acknowledge.
- If you're on the center or right, you think the Palestinians are an invention, and might purposely refer to them as Arabs and refuse to even say the word Palestinian.
- Occasionally, you hear in the news that there was a riot in the Territories, and some Palestinians died. Unless you're on the far left, you'd side with the IDF's version that the Palestinians who died were about to kill Israelis. Regardless of what you think of the settlers and the Haredis, the idea of the government using the same force against them repulses you.
- A huge chunk of the aphorisms you use in daily language are Biblical or Talmudic. You think a lot of the words in Biblical Hebrew are identical to their Modern Hebrew equivalents, e.g. you think the Leviathan was a whale because that's what the word means in Modern Hebrew.
- Another huge chunk of aphorisms comes from the military, unless you're Haredi.
- You probably speak English well enough to communicate with a monolingual foreigner. If you speak English very well, you'll mock the people who only speak it moderately well for making grammatical mistakes like "I must to go" and "let me to go."
- Unless you're an immigrant, it's unlikely you speak anything other than Hebrew and English. You'll probably respect someone who speaks Asian or non-English European languages, but if someone who is not Arab speaks Arabic, you might well ask them why they bothered.
- You know a few German words, which you say with an exaggerated German accent, in a Nazi-like posture. You don't hate the Germans anymore, but you still think of them as the Nazis.
- You will talk to everyone in the same way. If you studied any French, you found the tu-vous distinction funny. Why, in Israel you would even call the prime minister by nickname! Pretty much the only people you have to use formal language with are your commanders in the military, and American consular officers when you're getting your visa.
- Memorial Day is a day before Independence Day. Holocaust Day is observed on the anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, and not on that of the liberation of Auschwitz. Both days are somber days of reflection; if you're familiar with US Memorial Day, you mock Americans for going shopping on it.
- You use the metric system, but you measure many areas in Turkish dunams (1 dunam = 1,000 square meters), because real estate was standardized in the Ottoman era, which only ended in World War One.
- There are two calendars: the civil one that nearly the entire world uses, and the Jewish one, which is used for holidays. In either case, the date comes first: 5 Iyar 5708 (and you know what happened that date.)
- The decimal point is a point (same word as dot) — that's why it's called the decimal point.
- 109 is called a milliard. 1012 is called a trillion. 1015 is either a trilliard or a quadrillion. For 1018 and higher, you use the short scale, or, more likely, you don't.
- You know the word combina, and couldn't easily translate it into another language. It's a sort of trickery you play on people to get what you want. You don't think of it as fraud most of the time, but if someone does it to you, you'll be pissed.
- Foreign films and TV series for adults are subtitled. Foreign films and TV series for children are dubbed.
- In school, you went over Classical Mediterranean, Classical Arab, Medieval and Modern European, and American history. You know next to nothing about Africa, pre-Columbian America, Latin America, or Asia east of Iran.
- School is free. Private, tuition-funded schools don't exist, but there are some prestigious charter schools, like Alliance, which you call private schools. University isn't free, and scholarships and loans don't really exist, so you have to come up with $2,500-3,000 a year yourself to get a degree, usually by working for a year and saving money before going to university.
- University is 3 years long, unless you're studying medicine, and then it's 7 including internship. You only start your studies after you finished your military service. You seriously resent Arabs for getting to start university straight out of high school.
- In high school, most students, especially from middle-class or richer backgrounds, go on field trips to Poland, to see the concentration camps. If you've gone on one, you think the modern Poles are all anti-Semites, but still treated the trip as an irreverent opportunity to have fun.
- Unless you're religious, you think of holidays as school holidays — in kindergarten and early elementary school people always talk about the importance of each holiday right before it happens. You’re likely to be a bit fuzzy on the details of the one important fast day in Judaism that happens during summer vacation, Tisha B'Av ("9th of Av").
Space and Time
- If you have an appointment, you'll mutter an excuse if you're ten minutes late. An hour late is almost inexcusable.
- You expect to bargain for things at the outdoors market, but not at more upscale indoors stores.
- Once you're past university, you very rarely simply show up at someone's place. People have to invite each other over, especially if a meal is involved.
- You are extremely direct, and think Americans are timid and square.
- If you have a business appointment or interview with someone, you expect to have that person to yourself, and the business shouldn't take more than an hour or so.
- You’re a little suspicious of people who are too polite. A little rudeness is expected.
- You’re very suspicious of people who smile — are they making fun of you?