Thursday, July 05, 2007

Milestone

Why living in Israel
is like being a
recovering alcoholic


This will be my 10th Fourth of July as an American expatriate living in Israel. Compared to my colleagues, friends and neighbors, I'm still a greenhorn. Nevertheless, 10 years - and two weeks - is something of a milestone.

When people from the Old Country ask me what I miss most about my former Manhattan life, I can't give them a straightforward answer. Sure, I miss easy access to Manhattan's bookstores, bicycling along the East River, and above all else going to sleep on a Saturday night comforted by the knowledge that next morning is Sunday.

In other respects, fulfilling the Zionist dream - assuming you find work - scarcely demands much deprivation.

Most American Jews have never visited Israel, so I often get asked about the dangers of life here. The threat of violence concerns me, but only up to a point. There were years in New York when stepping outside the door involved a leap of faith. The worst was 1990, when 2,262 denizens of the five boroughs were murdered. Compare that to 2002, the worst year of the second intifada, when 451 Israelis were killed.

New York is a lot safer these days, but there are still rapists loose in Prospect Park and murderers on the Q train.

As for the mullahs, their rapacious appetites will hardly be satiated by an attack on Israel alone. In a clash of civilizations, it almost doesn't matter where you live.

I CAN'T profess to miss New York's unparalleled cultural attractions - theater, ballet, concerts and museums. Who had the time? Fact is, I've enjoyed more of these as a visitor than I did as a resident.

I do miss the water. The Big Apple is spending $700,000 on an advertising campaign to encourage locals to drink its tap water. Meantime, I've gotten used to lugging bottles of mineral water up the three flights to our apartment.

Which reminds me - I miss having an elevator.

There's plenty about Israel that's uplifting. Take electrical power. The Israel Electric Company generated a record 9,670 megawatts of power, an all-time record, during last week's heat wave. To its credit - and good fortune - the air-conditioners kept humming. (Oh, I also miss not having air-conditioning at home.)

At about the same time New York was experiencing its own heat wave, but Con Ed couldn't keep up with demand, forcing the utility to pull the plug on parts of Manhattan and the Bronx. The Metropolitan Museum of Art had to be evacuated and the Lexington Avenue subways were brought to a sudden halt for hours.

JERUSALEM is hardly immune to the frustrations that make urban life a challenge. Traffic congestion can be maddening. Hebron Road, a main north-south thoroughfare, is frequently bumper-to-bumper during my morning commute; the boulevard's been dug up, repaved and dug up so many times, locals are convinced the work has no real purpose other than to vex commuters and enrich contractors.

Forget about bringing a private car into the municipal center. City fathers have come up with "new traffic patterns" to keep motorists driving in circles. As for public transportation, don't get me started about all the time I waste waiting for the No. 7; or about Egged drivers who, with lead-footed acceleration and precipitous braking, seem to derive a perverse pleasure from keeping elderly passengers airborne.

If the Big Apple has kinder and gentler bus operators, its traffic is anything but. I'm reliably informed that the Van Wyck Expressway was so backed up last Thursday it looked like one very long parking lot. Meanwhile, Mayor Michael Bloomberg is pushing for an auto congestion charge (like the one in London) that would make driving in Manhattan even more brutish.

SO IT'S not the supposed deprivation, or the hassles of daily life that make living in Israel a pressure-cooker for me, but rather being out of tune with the Israeli psyche. Had I come at a younger age and gone though the army and college, I'd have been better acculturated. Instead, I'm often left perplexed. In New York, I was street-wise; here I'm a freier.

The biggest disappointment is the realization that Israeli Jews aren't just like their Diaspora cousins.

When someone behaved in a loutish manner on the F train, or carried on inappropriately, I would remind myself that "they" weren't Jewish; what could you expect?

Israel has cured me of that prejudice. Here the yobs are almost exclusively Jewish. In the Diaspora we felt a bourgeois responsibility to deport ourselves properly "in front of the goyim." Living in Israel, in contrast, is like living with a large dysfunctional family. No one, and I mean no one, is embarrassed to behave in a boorish manner.

THERE IS also the discomfiture that comes with not having native-level Hebrew. The other day, I needed a chest X-ray and could've sworn the technician mumbled something about whether I was a fox.

I later figured out she was inquiring if I had a cough.

The inscrutable Israeli psyche is particularly in-your-face on the roads. Signaling before switching lanes is frowned upon, and I'm still not culturally attuned enough to comprehend why someone with a "Peace Now" bumper sticker won't trade a car-length for peace, or why a fellow with "A Jew does not expel another Jew" anti-disengagement sticker has no compunction about forcing this Jew off the road.

Bottom line? The hardest part about living in Israel is adjusting to the mores of the natives, and remembering that I would be setting myself up for endless grief to expect native-born Israelis to embrace the values I brought with me.

Which is why making aliya is a little like being in a program for recovering alcoholics - you've gotta take life one day, one Fourth of July, at a time.

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