Archive | April, 2014

My bed is your bed for $100

27 Apr

It’s Passover.  Every year we celebrate the Jewish holiday as hosts or guests.  Now into our third year in Israel, my wife and I, and my twin teenage daughters, decided to celebrate the Passover dinner in Jerusalem.  Hotels hike the prices to the max during the holiday season; typically they double the nightly rate.  And since there’s four of us (2 hotel rooms), it means that we would not be “free” but rather “slaves” once again, to our credit card.

The other option is to book an apartment in Jerusalem.  From strangers.  For 2 nights.  So that’s how the travel website AIRBNB came to the rescue.  Since I booked the apartment two months ahead of time, and since the owners wanted to rent their place, we were able to secure a daily rate of about $100.

Our Jerusalem apartment hosts

Our Jerusalem apartment hosts

What a deal!

This is not the first time we stay at other people’s home for a fee.  We routinely travel from Galilee to Tel Aviv, see the town, catch a show, stroll the beach, dine at cafes, and a night or two later, we trek back home.  The apartments come fully furnished, the kitchen comes fully stocked with utensils, dishes, coffee maker, fridge, stove top.  The bed linens are clean, the towels are a little rough and worn.  The “artwork” on the walls is mostly posters of young couples holding umbrellas in the rain, or wild horses grazing in green meadows.  But for $150 a night in Tel Aviv, it’s considered a bargain.   The Tel Aviv apartments are devoid of the owners’ personal belongings.  You get a stripped-down apartment, much like a time-share.

But not in Jerusalem.

During Passover we stayed at Beit Kerem, a secular neighborhood in the center of Jerusalem, quaint, quiet, and close to the Light Rail that takes you to the Old City.  The hosts, a young man and woman, greet us at the curb.  We introduce ourselves and a minute later we climb up the stairwell to the second level.  From behind each door there’s the smell of matzo-ball soup, roasted chicken, and whatever your imagination can conjure up.   The front door opens to a living room with modular furniture, a reclining chair, rug on the floor,big stereo speakers attached to the wall.  The couple gives us the tour: “Here’s the kitchen.  One of your daughters can sleep on the couch, the second daughter on a roll-away bed over here.  And here’s the bedroom for both of you.”  We nod and follow them in.  Folded towels sit on an IKEA-type double-bed.  The one bathroom is full with their stuff: toothpaste, mouthwash, make-up, deodorants.   They then show us the kitchen, how to operate the small appliances.  “And as we stated on our website,” they continue, “we have a cat that strolls in and out.  Just fill the bowls with cat food and water.”  They write their phone numbers with a whiteboard marker on thekitchen tile, hand us the keys, and close the door behind them.

We stand there, in the middle of the living room, with our suitcases, in someone else’s house.  For a $100.

For someone who’d spent decades in the U.S., personal space is almost a God-given right.  Here, in Israel, in God’s country, and in God’s town – Jerusalem – personal space is much less personal.  Typical Israelis don’t give personal space and they don’t expect personal space, either.  They don’t seem bothered with limited space.  They aren’t bothered much when their opinion is cut short, interrupted.  They just return the favor.   If you don’t speak out, if you don’t speak loud enough, your voice will be drowned by someone else’s words, music, noise.

View of Jerusalem's Old City

View of Jerusalem’s Old City

Speak up, or be silenced.

Grab the beach chair, the restaurant chair, or remain standing.

Take up space, or have it taken away from you.

Park your car in impossible spaces, or circle the parking lot until sundown.

Tailgate the car ahead of you, or have some other driver sit on your bumper.

It’s a small country, buddy.

It’s midnight.  We just returned from Passover Seder.  Our heads are full of wine, and our stomachs are full of matzahs and chicken.  My wife and I floss our teeth in our hosts’ Jerusalem bathroom, shower in their tub, use their conditioner and shampoo, use their towels.  We climb into bed.  Their bed.  Their pillows.

In the morning, we use their skillet to make eggs, use their coffee-maker.  A cat meows in the yard below.  I lounge on the living room sofa, sort through their LP collection from the sixties: Beatles, The Who.

Such memories the songs bring.

I take a seat on a padded-chair in their small, flower-potted balcony.

It’s my personal space.

At least until check-out time.





Are you happier than an Israeli?

12 Apr

The United Nations recently published its “2013 World Happiness Report.” Consider yourself lucky If you’re sitting in a Copenhagen cafe and sipping a latte, enjoying a Danish.  Denmark was ranked as No.1 in the Happiness Index.  The Danish people avoid conflict; they did not take sides during World War II, they value the environment and they help each other out.  Makes you want to throw them all into the Atlantic.

2013 United Nations "World Happiness Report"

2013 United Nations “World Happiness Report”

But if they’re No. 1, what about the rest of us?

First off, we must define “Happiness.”  I’m not a social psychologist, but the United Nations report attempted to evaluate people’s happiness on two levels: 1.  Emotion: “Were you happy yesterday?”  2.  Evaluation: “Are you happy with your life as a whole?”

Researchers recognize that Happiness has “changed” over time.  In the days of the Greek philosophers it had more to do with a person’s moral character and whether that person had “purpose,” “passion,” and “thrived.”  Since 1800, Happiness has shifted and has more to do with material conditions: income, money, and consumption.

I think it was billionaire Donald Trump who was once told that money can’t buy happiness.  His response?  “You just don’t know where to shop.”

So the United Nations went out and interviewed thousands in each of the 156 countries in the report.  People were asked if they felt good today and how they felt about their lives 5 years down the road.  Some “thrived,” some “struggled” and some “suffered” – all based on answers to questions on health, income, education, social support.

Jews in Israel complain, bitch & moan, kvetch.  So it’s a surprise that Israel came in at…number 11.happy face

Other than Northern European countries, Israel came out ahead of Mexico (16), USA (17), England (22), France (25), Germany (26), Spain (38), Italy (45), Russia (68), China (93), India (111).

So, why are Israelis happy?

One measure was longevity.  Israelis live longer.  Healthcare is decent and affordable.  Standard of living was another.  Although home prices are skyrocketing, homeownership is high.  But the number 1 contributor to happiness, according to the UN report, is “social support.”

The social support, the connectedness, are engrained in the Jewish and Israeli DNA.  They look out for one another.  I assume it has to do with history.  To survive, they always had to stick together.

Israelis complain, but hey, at least they complain together.

I teach English in Nazareth and in Zefat.  During a night class, the school security guard comes into class.  “Your car lights are fading off,” he says.  “You’re battery’s dead.”  The students immediately offer help and suggestions.  One woman student gets on her cell phone.  She’s calling her husband and from the tone of her voice it doesn’t appear he has a choice.  Five minutes later, in the parking lot, the student’s husband jump starts my car, and before long, he tells me his life’s story and plans.

In onion field with my dog Max

In onion field with my dog Max

Israelis connect with ease at home and overseas. I’m at the Anne Frank Museum in Amsterdam.  There’s a map of pre-war Europe on the wall.  A man next to me points at Germany.  Within minutes, we strike up a conversation, debate.  We’re no longer in a foreign land but rather at a street corner in Israel.

Don’t get me wrong.  All this “togetherness” has its price.  There are times that you do want some privacy, a chance to breathe, a moment without someone offering opinions, asked for or not.  You might be a renowned doctor and an Israeli plumber will tell you how to perform by-pass surgery.  You might be a great criminal lawyer, but an Israeli law student will tell you how to defend your client.

Israelis know better.

But at the end of the day, it’s familiar, like an old sweater.

I’m sitting at a cafe in Galilee, Israel.  I’m sipping Turkish coffee (77) and munching on a bar of Swiss chocolate (3).  Can’t be all bad.

Are you happy?


Maurice Labi is an Israeli-American who lived in Los Angeles for many years. In 2011 He returned to Northern Israel (Galilee) with his wife and twin teenage daughters. He is of two lands, of two cultures and he blogs about his experiences in Israel, particularly from Galilee where Jews and Arabs dwelled for centuries.

He has also written three novels: “Jupiter’s Stone,” “Into the Night,” and “American Moth” — available at

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