From the moment my wife and I moved our family from San Diego, California to Ra’anana nearly four months ago, we’ve noticed countless puzzling things about Israel, some good, some bad; some funny, some infuriating; some trivial, some important. In fact, my wife has adopted the hashtag #BecauseItsIsrael as an ironic answer to certain rhetorical questions of befuddled, bewildered, and downright bedeviled new arrivals. Let this column serve as a sort of guide for the perplexed.
Now, I’m a bit embarrassed to admit that I’ve allowed almost four months of living in Israel to pass without writing about my family’s experience.
And I’m more than a bit embarrassed that my first such contribution is neither a heartfelt appreciation for the Jewish state, an in-depth analysis of Israel’s always-tenuous geopolitical position, nor a hesped for the holy souls who’ve perished over the last few weeks, but instead a lighthearted reflection on life here.
And I’m even more embarrassed that this reflection takes the form of the well-deservedly-mocked “listicle.”
That said, certain Israeli systems, trends, devices, customs, and rules just don’t make sense, and I feel duty-bound to expose them to the wider world in the hope of discerning meaning in the chaos, finding common ground among different cultures, helping others who feel similarly know that they’re not alone, lightening the mood in a justifiably tense country—and just plain venting my spleen.
So without further ado, here are 11 Perplexing Things About Living in Israel:
- Dysfunctional Bissli bags. Kids love Bissli. But Osem doesn’t much love their parents. Forget about the MSG, the carbs, the sugar, and the fat in those demonic pizza/barbecue/onion-flavored treats. What kills me is how Bissli bags fall completely apart within seconds of opening them. Doesn’t matter if you open them from the middle, peel back one corner, or snip off the entire top: the bags will decompose in your munchkin’s hands almost immediately. Osem makes plenty of other snacks, including Bamba and pretzels in dozens of different varieties. But none of those bags ever unravel in the same, slow, sickeningly predictable way the Bissli bags do. I’ll prove it to you: scour the seats and floor mats of your car. You’ll probably find some Cheerios, a pretzel or two, even a few stray Bamba tubes. But spilled Bissli will dominate the composition of your car trash—guaranteed.
- Schools that end at different times each day. Thankfully, our children have adjusted well to new friends, a new language, and new educational techniques. But my wife and I have not adjusted well at all to a peculiar characteristic of the Israeli public elementary school system: two of our kids, in Second and Fourth Grades, end their school day at a different time each day. Worse, those end times differ for each kid, almost every day. Incomprehensible. It’s not as if Misrad HaChinuch doesn’t appreciate the benefits of uniformity. After all, every single grade at our kids’ school begins every single day at the same time. And my younger daughter’s gan chovah begins and ends the same time each day, apart from Fridays. Would it be so hard to end school for all grades at the same time every day?
- Flat (or even convex) shower drainage areas. This is an old gripe, but for a country with such brilliant technological minds, who on Earth designs a shower drain like this? It’s flat, for chrissakes, and therefore guarantees flooding throughout the bathroom. Why not, say, take advantage of gravity and funnel used shower water downward? Some drains I’ve seen, and now regret not photographing, even tilt There may be a universe in which convex drains make sense, but neither I nor any Israeli has inhabited it. Still, folks in the Jewish state have some kind of penchant for flood-worthy bathing apparatuses. After all, what other country’s showers inspire their own Tumblr?
- Obscene English-language t-shirts. I get that it’s cool to wear American-branded clothing. I appreciate that t-shirts with English slogans are appealing in a counter-cultural kind of way. But there’s simply no excuse for a middle-aged woman walking around with a pink t-shirt with a Playboy bunny (trust me: she wasn’t exactly centerfold material), for a teenage girl to strut her stuff in a shirt with the slogan “Let’s be like fish and f&$# in the water,” or, worst of all, for a middle-aged man—at the airport, no less—to rock a black t-shirt that says, I kid you not, “F&$# That Dead C&@#!” (These examples were only from the past few weeks.) I’ve never seen Americans wearing clothing with Hebrew curse words, nor have I seen others elsewhere in the world sporting t-shirts with English obscenities. Only in Israel.
- Banks. Enough said.
- Banks: no currency trades on Sundays. Okay, I’ll get a bit more specific about banks. Yes, it’s a pain that they all seem to keep bizarre hours, including a massive lunchtime “siesta” break when everyone inside the locked building still seems to be working (just not dealing with customers). Yes, the hours are even more limited on Friday. And, yes, it’s darn near impossible to open a bank account without a Teudat Zehut—unless you’re willing to post your first-born child as collateral. But what really gets me is the following: the banks are open on Sunday, but they won’t execute foreign currency transactions then because, after all: “It’s Sunday!” Huh? Why should the fact that foreign banks are closed prevent me from exchanging a few hundred dollars to shekels on my computer?! I need foreign banks to be open to perform a fully automated transaction? Madness, I tell you.
- Placing change on the counter (instead of into the customer’s hand). This is another oldie but goodie. Pay attention next time you buy something at a store or restaurant. The cashier will generally place the change on the counter, not in your hand, even if you’ve extended it. Why oh why?
- Not accepting tips via credit card. Before launching into my tirade, a brief note of hakarat hatov: I’m grateful that tipping in Israel isn’t always expected, that a 10% tip is deemed acceptable and a 15% tip is considered generous, and that most waiters genuinely appreciate receiving a tip—and tell you so. That said, I’m bumfuzzled as to why so many Israeli restaurants refuse to allow patrons to add a tip via credit card and insist on cash payments. The excuses are manifold: Our machine can’t handle it. It’s too complicated. Our waiters prefer cash. But there’s only one real excuse that makes any sense: We don’t want to pay taxes on tips. And yet, if other restaurants can figure this out, so can the stragglers. So I’ve decided to launch a personal campaign against credit-card tip restrictions by simply—and loudly—not leaving them when I can’t put them on my card. Join me!
- Gas station limits on foreign credit cards. While I’m on the topic of credit cards, anyone who’s tried to use an American Visa, AmEx, or MasterCard at Sonol, Paz, Delek, or other fine Israeli petroleum purveyors has encountered the maddening frustration of the NIS 200 limit. Apparently for security and credit-card integrity reasons, fuelers using non-Israeli credit cards can purchase only 200 shekel worth of gasoline over the course of a day. Now, I understand the need to prevent fraud, especially at pumps unsupervised by gas-station personnel, and thus a prohibition against using foreign credit cards entirely would make sense. But how on earth does it help to allow would-be credit-card thieves to steal gasoline totaling NIS 200—but not an agurah more? Who does it benefit to permit fraudsters to spend 200 shekel, but not the 325 or so it takes to fill the tank? Not me, who spent the first month or so in Israel driving around with a tank 2/3 full, which I had to futilely, partially refill far more often than I preferred.
- Squeegees and rags. Once again, enough said.
- Shopping carts. Seemingly everyone knows about the vexing 5-shekel-coin requirement to untether a shopping cart in most Israeli supermarkets. But bashing that ridiculous feature—so absurd that I’ve even seen keychain fobs that simulate a 5-shekel piece for easy reuse and location—is like shooting fish in a barrel. Instead, my beef is with the carts’ wheels, which invariably veer in every direction but the one you want, especially as the carts become more laden with groceries. How hard would it be to engineer the cart wheels to stay straight, as they do in most civilized places? As our friend once queried, “Have they no casters in this country?”
Your insightful explanations of these peculiarities are most welcome. In any event, I feel a lot better now, having unburdened my mind.