I did it. I cracked the code.
Before divulging my secret formula, I think it’s important to explore the issue further, to try and explain why this is such an uphill battle for Anglo olim.
As I see it, the problem lies in the fact that native Israelis have no patience for those things that they believe should “come easily,” chief among them conversation. (The list may also include parking, making change at the register or any activity performed by someone else.) Israeli life moves at lightning speed, and Israelis simply don’t have a second to spare. (Except when they are leisurely drinking an ice coffee at a café in the middle of a workday. But that’s a topic for another post.)
I know that they want us “newbies” to master the language, to adapt to every element of Israeli life. But it often feels like we are set up to fail. For those of us who arrive in Israel too late in life to serve (and dive headlong into Hebrew) in the IDF, it is rarely a choice between being “given a fish or taught to fish” and more often along the lines of being dropped on the side of the road and told to find a body of water and catch a fish with our bare hands. In other words, we are being asked to learn a language without the proper tools.
My entire professional life (in the US and Israel) feels like an endless cycle of finding myself in the ideal situation to build my Hebrew language skills…and then being forced to speak in English by an Israeli colleague (the one who was supposed to be my “teacher”) because I wasn’t picking up the lingo quickly enough. Still, I have been plugging along, and I believe that I can communicate effectively in Hebrew when given the chance. It’s just that I’m not often given such a chance.
Ever since I started wearing jeans regularly (even to work), I have noticed a profound difference in the way I am perceived by the average Israeli. It may sound ridiculous, but wearing the unofficial Israeli uniform – jeans and a polo shirt – opens doors and, more importantly, ears.
This was only a hunch until last week when I put my theory to the ultimate test: passport renewal at the US Consulate.
Though my trip to the Consulate made it abundantly clear that I wasn’t born here, my cab drivers (there and back) and the Consulate guards never once attempted to speak to me in English. If ever there was a place for a dismissive switch into English to speed things along, the Consulate is that place. I waited for the switch, but it never came. Clearly, my jeans played serious Jedi mind tricks on them.
Elated, I spread the good news (and the secret formula) far and wide via Facebook and Twitter. One of my Facebook friends replied that I was on the right track, and that I should simply continue to “conform.” While I’m not sure if the comment was intended as serious advice or a joke, I thought about it for quite some time and was moved to write this post.
Though conforming may often provide the easiest route to an immediate goal, it is rarely the wisest choice. Conforming can cause one to lose sight of his personal goals and cripple his sense of self. The ideal, therefore, is for one to find a framework in which he feels most comfortable and work within it to become the individual he truly wishes to be.
Prior to making aliya, I worked in the Aliyah Department of the Jewish Agency as the North American director of the Elite Academy Program/Na’ale, a scholarship program that places foreign students in Israeli high schools in the hopes that they will plant their roots in Israel following graduation. Throughout my four years on the job, my Israeli liaison was Abe Reichman, an Anglo-Israeli who worked closely with the Ministry of Education to make sure that we selected the right students and that those selected were given all the tools they needed to excel.
What set Abe apart was his staunch professionalism, his brutal honesty, his offbeat sense of humor, his unbridled enthusiasm and the fact that he wore jeans and sneakers at all times. Even when the Israeli shlihim dressed up to impress the American movers and shakers, Abe was wearing jeans.
Though it struck me as odd that he wouldn’t conform to American business standards for the few days a year that he spent in the US screening students and wooing partner organizations, I was always in awe of his self-awareness. I may have felt awkward meeting with prospective students or the head of a Jewish Federation together with a guy wearing jeans, but the guy wearing the jeans was armed with the knowledge of exactly who he was and exuded confidence in every situation.
Must one wear jeans to fit into Israeli society? No. But he must embrace what the jeans represent, namely never standing on ceremony, never taking oneself too seriously, and always feeling comfortable in one’s own skin. If one connects with his inner Abe, Israelis (and possibly others) will take note of this attitude and respect him for it – jeans or no jeans.
However, if one does dare to don the denim, he must never allow his jeans to become a real uniform. After all, no progress is made when one swaps one uniform for another. He must wear them only because when he is physically comfortable, and not preoccupied with the hidden meanings of outer trappings, can he focus on the things that are really important, like family, friends, and becoming the individual he truly wishes to be.
As Anglo-Israelis, it’s important that we take it one step further. Though challenging, we must better ourselves by embracing Israeli culture and ideals while enhancing Israeli society by imbuing it with certain key Western values.
Patience toward someone who is learning a new language would be an excellent place to start.