More than three decades of living in America does its thing. I thought of explaining “thing” but decided to better illustrate with Show & Tell. It’s now past my 4th year in Israel. America, its ideals, its way of life, its oddities and mannerism, still sticks to my ribs. I still answer the phone with “Hello” rather than “HALLO!” This is a dead give away that I did not completely assimilate with the locals. The stranger on the line will either admire the quaintness of my pronunciation or seize to exploit the “foreigner.” But I’m not totally defenseless. I’ve acquired the thick skin of the “Sabra,” a thorny cactus fruit, tough on the outside and tender and sweet on the inside — a nickname assigned to the Israeli-born.
After 4 years I find myself speaking LOUDER to be heard, or be drowned by louder voices; I find that I give less personal space while waiting in line at the bank, at the clinic, at the university. Most Israelis don’t seem to mind, and they return the favor in kind. I give advice when none is asked. (Okay, then, don’t take my advice). I no longer cringe when invited guests poke their utensils in dishes for a double-triple-quadruple dip rather than use the serving spoons. It’s all a family “thing.” And now during winter, it’s common to see people carry rolls of toilet paper, cut a few squares and blow their noses, set the roll back on the table as if it’s the most beautiful adornment, and continue chatting away. I no longer reach for the scented menthol Kleenex. A sandpaper toilet roll is okay by me.
I’m just as tough as the next Israeli.
Place: University parking lot. Time: 6 at night (18:00 in Israeli military clock).
Conditions: Dark, cold. I’m seated inside my American-made, sporty-looking, limited-edition Toyota Camry. I bend over my dashboard to charge my cellphone. BANG! I hear a grinding noise. I raise my head. A car is trying to unlock itself from my front bumper. I honk. (When in doubt in Israel, just HONK!). I leap out of my car and see a very pregnant woman step out of her car. She apologizes. I look at her car. It’s a very old, banged up on all four sides. I’m thinking she had lots of practice. A security guard rushes to the “crime scene” and confirms her “guilt.” I’m upset but I don’t want to upset her for it seems her baby had dropped six inches while we’re talking. We exchange information and I drive off with my bashed bumper. During the drive I regret having bought an American “imported” car. I wanted to act American in a land that is not America. The drawbacks are many: 1. Warranty. No Toyota dealership in Israel would cover me during the typical three or four years in case something major broke down.
You’re on your own, Mr. Americano. 2. Exotic Model. Parts are not available at the warehouse but have to be imported. Ouch! 3. Insurance companies don’t like privately imported cars. Therefore, I pay higher premiums. 4. Resale value will suffer, I’m told, because it was imported instead of through a dealership. 5. Radio frequency in America is different from the one in Israel. Changing over is tedious and expensive. So I continue to fidget with the dial and land on hissing, half-tuned stations. But I did find an English music-playing station that’s reasonable – from Jordan! May Allah Akbar be with me.
The next day I spend at the body shop. The mechanic, Arab, has wonderful hands, runs his fingers over the wounded car. After he copies my car registration he makes a few calls and returns with the verdict: To replace the dented bumper (“You see it will come from America…) $1700. The cracked headlight: $700. (“Did I tell you, this too will come from America?”). I point to the relatively little damage and wish to protest. He reads my mind. “It’s American,” he says.
I drive home trying to pump myself for the upcoming confrontations. I’ll be tough with the insurance company which threatens to raise my premium although I’m not at fault (“This is how it is in Israel, Mr. Labi.”). I’ll be tough with the pregnant woman whose husband called several times and said that they are poor and for me to go easy on them. (“Did I tell you my wife is not well, and we are going to be a family soon?”)
I come to a stop at a red light. I’m no longer an Israeli-American. This is the “thing.” I’m tough as a “Sabra.” I reach for a roll of toilet paper and blow my nose.
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 Amazon.com
or at BN.com