As nice as it is to visit my hometown after not having been here for over nine months, something pulls me back to Israel. It probably isn’t just one thing. Sure, it would be easy focus on the beautiful, mild weather—especially now that I’m in New York, hiding indoors from the howling wind, and the feeble November sun that fails to warm the freezing streets. People also like to talk about how great the food (i.e. falafel and shwarma) is in Israel, and I agree, but like the weather, that’s hardly justification to uproot yourself from the place you grew up and move to another country.
So what’s really pulling me back? I think it’s the people. Israelis receive a lot of criticism, and especially like to criticize themselves, for being rude and aggressive. These common complaints aren’t made-up; they’re based on the fact that in Israel, you have to be tough, or you’ll get eaten alive. Yet the Israeli preference for informality over formality, for intimacy over polite distance, means among other things that there is always somebody watching out for you.
Here, you’re never anonymous. Here, you matter. There are no strangers, though they may start as such.
The other evening after work, I receive a call from the IDF enlistment office. I know that it is the army because the number is blocked, and my heart rate speeds up a little because it is the army—a vast body with many components, and a strong element of unpredictability. In one month, I will be drafting into this institution.
I pick up, and the young soldier on the line informs me that I have missed Yom HaMeah, the unit tryouts for girls (What unit try-outs? Why was I never told about this?), and my only choice is to either rank the job options they describe, or postpone my long-anticipated military service for several more months. The offered jobs sound less-than-interesting: mishmar hagvul (border guard). Neshekite (managing the weapons’ warehouse). Army police. I try to tell the soldier what I actually want, but it’s not one of the available options.
“These are the jobs you must choose from. Or would you prefer not to serve in the army?”
No, that was not an option for me. I had worked hard to overturn my draft exemption (I’m over the age limit of mandatory conscription) and cannot imagine living in this country without serving in the military.
In moments of frustration, my Hebrew either sharpens and comes out fast, or it dwindles, even the most basic words eluding me. This was definitely the latter situation. In fact, I succumbed and started speaking to her in English.
“She’s talking in English, I don’t understand,” says the soldier in Hebrew to another soldier in the background. “Anybody speak English?”
Giggles from several girls.
“Shut up, bitch,” I overhear the representing soldier say to her friend.
I do the only thing I could do: I run, not walk, out of my apartment on Sheinkin Street, and scout the street for somebody, anybody who can help.
The first person I see is the blonde shopkeeper of a boutique next door, a girl who couldn’t be much older than I am, smoking a cigarette against a motorcycle outside her shop. She wears a vacant look of boredom, one that could even be interpreted as snobbery.
But I am getting desperate, so I approach her and explain my situation—the army still on the line. Her expression changes as she listens. She grows indignant by my story, grabs my cell phone and begins to advocate for me:
“This girl came to serve in the army, she wants to volunteer and contribute. She’s a Zionist. She has a first degree. Won’t you give her a good job?”
The shopkeeper passes on to me what they say, and tells them what I say. When it becomes clear that no progress is being made, she demands to speak to their commander.
This is a girl I had never met until then. And here she was, fighting on my behalf, attesting to my character and my motivation for serving in the army to the recruitment office.
Finally, she is transferred over to their commander, and then I have to get on the phone.
The commander asks me a few questions about why I want to serve in the IDF.
“Where do you want to go?” he asks.
“Kishrei chutz (the foreign relations unit) or dover tzahal (the spokesperson’s unit),” I say confidently.
I knew those were the units I wanted since I wrote my letter eight months ago requesting to join the army. And with all due respect to the neshekites of the IDF, I knew there was no way I was going to waste my one year of army service cleaning weapons in a warehouse. I wanted a challenging job, a job where I could contribute and maybe learn something.
The commander says he made a note of my preferences, and promises he’ll do his best to make it happen. By this point, I’m near the point of tears—the build up of months of waiting for the army, being led to believe I had missed an important try-out date (it turns out, I hadn’t) by the silly soldiers…and now, a ray of hope and reasonableness.
We hang up, and my shopkeeper advocate hands me her banana-date smoothie.
“Drink it,” she orders sternly, sitting on a stool. “And don’t cry. The army will think you’re weak and you won’t get what you want. Never show them weakness.”
As frustrating and intimidating Israeli bureaucracy can be sometimes, there is another side to it as well. The bureaucracy is obvious, and obviously problematic. But this is also a country of individuals, where a personal connection can mean everything in a given circumstance.
This isn’t even about the much-touted (or much-maligned when it’s missing) need for protexia, or connections. Rather than bemoan our lack of built-in networks and prior contacts in this country and blame the Israeli society for our difficulties, we new olim ought to realize that Israelis are generally very willing to help. On a recent Shabbat, my roommate and I were shopping in the supermarket for sour cream in order to make borscht. I asked one person and within seconds, several Israelis were getting involved, each eager to show us his favored type of shamenet.
Israelis get involved, and simply put—they care. They are hard on each other, and there is no doubt that arguing is a national pastime—but there is almost always a warmth and a sweetness about them. Perhaps on a deeper level, our choice as new immigrants to live here actually confirms to them the value of the lives they lead, and the sacrifices they make every day in order to live here. We are actually wanted in Israel, and millions of new immigrants from all over the world have been successfully absorbed in her very short history. Can that be said for any other country in the world?
A couple of weeks after receiving that phone call, I found out that I got drafted into one of the units I had requested. I was happy and very relieved. I can’t know for certain whether it was because of the shopkeeper’s efforts—I had made other attempts—but the incident stays with me.
It’s not because the things that it exemplifies—openness, concern for others, a community sensibility, for example, are so rare and exceptional here, but because of how truly hard they are to find in other large cities.
I spent ten idyllic months living on kibbutzim, and during that time I was told over and over again that it would be so much different once I had left the protective gates of the kibbutz. Don’t be naïve, they warned. And while much has changed in my life since then—now I live next door to fashionable shops and cafés, and not a horse stable; I pay for my groceries with real money, and not with a monthly stipend for the kibbutz kolbo; drunken howls from Allenby Street awaken me at night, and not the screech of mating peacocks—I find the welcoming spirit of the Israeli people remains fundamentally the same—and it amazes me more and more every day.