Israel Stories and Observation

This a  compilation of two years of notes that I scribbled while living in Israel. Some are short thoughts, some are observations of life, some are of people and some are small snippets of life.



Wild life

Birds are everywhere and so are cats and dogs. You see Pidgeons, whopoes and mynas. Cats sit on cars, window sills and scooters. I see white herons, grey cranes and gulls. You can sometimes hear the barks of golden jackals. Lizards run around sometimes an aegyptus garden snake passes a path. Blacks capped grey Crows whoop, sparrows feed in groups with pidgeons and mynas. You can hear a call of a kingfisher and it’s bright blue coat. 


Tel Aviv

Runners and joggers of all ages appear early morning on the beaches, mixing with surfers and paddle boarders and young people after bars. People walk their dogs and don’t pick after them. Kids walk back from nightclubs and mix on buses with phillipino, ex soviet and African immigrants on their way to work. 

Men walk into synagogues for morning prayers. Waves of Mediterranean, gently caress the shore rocks. Skyscrapers gaze onto the old bauhaus shacks and ruins, separated by mosque minarets of Jaffa. First tourists of the day and citizens coming home fly in on the first flight, passing the city wrapped in a morning haze. Palestinian and Chinese workers to construction sites, and the city grows a little more.


Army Mentality

I was told by a friend that “Israel is not a country with an army but an army with a country”. Because everyone served here, the professor or team leader act like a commander of a unit. It means they eat last and they are last to leave. My professor always comes to our evening events. If someone is leaving or we celebrate, he is there, even if it is just visiting student from abroad. He always eats last. At an event at Weizman, we took several cars and there was not enough space for three people, the two professors and a post doc stayed behind to go on the second trip while the undergraduates and graduate students left in the first group. This I cannot imagine happening in US but seems normal here.


The bus surfing girl

Yellow headphones, olive skin, frizzy Jewish curls sharp features angled face, maroon long dress, running shoes. She hold to a skateboard in one hand and a book: “philosophy of science” in the other. She is reading the book as she sways her head to music and to the motion of the bus, lowering herself like a surfer on a surfboard as the bus break and swerves. 



Pee everywhere and have a louder and lower voice than anywhere else. There is no nasly high pitched voice that so many Americans have. 

Their voice carries far and wide and gets only lower with age.  There is a lot of machismo, a lot of confidence.


Little park near the beach. Big birthday, lots of tables with food, little tables with green covers. Lots of paints and crafts, kids color a giant branch and decorate it. Two girls, in with a dozen balloon, pink dress, blond curls, poses for another girl in a tie dye shirt and jean pants. The girl in jeans has a rectangular board with a little round mirror and a purple button on top. It’s her camera. She takes takes pretend pictures of her friend and tells her friend to pose. Then she will sit on the bench next to her friend and they go over the pretend pictures they took as if the back of the board is a tablet.



I arrive at ichlov hospital emergency room. The guard says I can’t park, he doesn’t know anything about wheelchairs and my patient can’t walk. He says I can go park and he will put out a chair. I hobble him in and park. He is barely standing to get a form at check in desk. Sick have to stand and the ladies at the desk sit. The lady calls for him to come over to triage. He hops over on one leg. She asks what’s wrong, my foot hurts he says. What’s wrong with it? She asks. All she had to was look at why he hops and looks at his foot where she would see a toe staring in the wrong direction. Can I get a wheelchair he asks, she says, I don’t know where they are, go look around. We hobble 200 feet to the x ray. He sweats from the strain, has to take breaks and only finally gets to the X-ray. No one helps along the way. Finally they ask if he needs a wheelchair and help him. Meanwhile a Palestinian Arab kid was joyriding around on his wheelchair without a care. This is israel, medical system 



I’ve yet to go to an event that does a test of all audio and video and have it all work. The mics never work and often laptops and videos never do. It’s like no matter how often they see these mishaps, idea to test equipment before doing a presentation, never crosses the mind. 



People smoke everywhere. Weed. At stores at work at school with bosses and coworkers. You smell it all the time and everywhere. It’s a normal part of life’s. 


Street Chase

Riding a bus to school. Going down the Shalome street near har tzion. Guys sitting at a local outside bar drinking beer and I see them chase down some thin little guy in a green baseball hat and large shirt. They grab him drag him and pummel him. Guy behind me, with his face in his phone, in a nice shirt and short neat black hair  turns around, sees it, goes back to his phone.

A few stops later I see a man in a yellow and blue sports jacket running with a plastic bag. A skinny grey short- haired man dressed in black is chasing him. Man at front is dark Ukranian or Russian face, he is huffing and puffing but running for his life, man behind him tries to keep up but has an expression of exasperation. They run between cars and up Har Tzion past all the street shops, the man at front changes course after passing a car and then runs down the hill, the  older man tries but can’t. I see down the hill, the man in yellow getting further away as the old man slows down. Plenty of people in the street watching this, no one does anything this time. 

“That’s twice” I say to the guy behind me who was also looking at the runners.

He looks at me and says:  “That’s tel Aviv” and puts his face back into his phone. 


Old Ladies in Government Offices

I have to get a vaccine for my work. I get an appointment in Petah Tikvah. I arrive at a building for which I have the address. I walk in and it is a regular government building. Older ladies come to me and ask what I need. I say I need a vaccine. One says she will go find out. The other asks if I need coffee.

Army Mentality

I was told by a friend that “Israel is not a country with an army but an army with a country”. Because everyone served here, the professor or team leader act like a commander of a unit. It means they eat last and they are last to leave. My professor always comes to our evening events. If someone is leaving or we celebrate, he is there, even if it is just visiting student from abroad. He always eats last. At an event at Weizman, we took several cars and there was not enough space for three people, the two professors and a post doc stayed behind to go on the second trip while the undergraduates and graduate students left in the first group. This I cannot imagine happening in US but seems normal here.


Stranger Blunts

Walk past a club, comedy night inside, they invite me. I speak no Hebrew but I sit down anyway.  Guy next to me rolls a blunt on top of his medical bill. Shares his joint. German tourists come in. The Comedians bring them up to the front and teach them a dirty Hebrew song.


Stranger charity

Israel is going to a cash bar without cash and they give you the beer free of charge: “Chang sameach mother fucker”


How to talk to an Israeli

Israelis are sabras  (fruit of a cactus) through and through. Unlike Americans, Israelis speak directly, but when spoken directly to, become bothered and defensive, or prickly. They expect each other to push back and forth.  Unlike US, where all criticism has to be carefully given, that is not a concern, because nothing is every personal.



This country has no day of gratitude, I mean you pray all the time to god but to people? There’s a day of I’m sorry, people are kind of jerks so once a year they all say I’m sorry.



Generally very old. Hairy ears. Often Russian. Some are young and those are not.  One I told I need a paper to state if I’m healthy. “Are you healthy?” “I think so.” “Then you’re healthy” another one stuck a metal probe in my ear. It hurt, I moved. He said “stop squirming” I stoped squirming, my ear bled for a week. Another gave me two drugs for pain, both attack liver, never told me of side effects or asked anything other than: any allergies? But one asked for 26 shekels cash. I had none. My bank card doesn’t work, or I don’t remember the code. He says: how will you get me money? I can bring it tomorrow. Ok bring it tomorrow. 

Another doctor is a young Palestinian. I come in he is on whats ap. Didn’t look at me, takes my card and sends me to X-Ray. I come back from X-ray, he doesn’t look at me, checks on his computer while whatsaping, “you’re fine”.  I leave and decide to come back. He is on whatsap. “My shoulder feels out of place, can you take a look.” He gets up, looks at it, feels it. ”You’re fine.” 


Arabic as an Official Language

Only arabs speak arabic. This means it is in no way an official language so its “demotion” is actually a correlation to its actual status. Most politicians, and doctors can’t speak it. 


Medical System

The medical system here is on first obersvation pretty horrible. There is huge shortage of doctors here due to the fact that dozens of Americans come and study here occupying seats in the medical school only to leave the country. The Israeli doctors also often leave for the much better pay checks in US. As a result, the doctors who are left are often the old russian doctors who are highly unqualified and arab doctors who are hated by Jewish Israelis and in turn, hate the patients. What doesn’t help is the bureaucratic system that requires layers and layers of paperwork and referrals. This maybe with my insurance but it is the biggest and most used insurance in Israel. The doctor visits are usually short, but the process of waiting for the doctor and going through all the hoops will usually take away half a day. The system is affordable and does seem to weed out abuse. You can’t get a jug of medicine, most medicines are by prescription, they don’t seem to over prescribe. However, for non-hebrews speakers it is not easy as even english menus are usually half english and switch to hebrew, most of the staff speaks Russian Hebrew and very few English, I don’t know how many speak Arabic but I’m guessing very few. The main problem is the impersonality of most doctors, there is rare feeling of actual caring or interest, they seem to want to get you out, a little bit like Doc Martin :). But in the end, you get the service, without breaking the bank. You just have to be patient.

Half Ass

This is a country of half ass. The translations on phones and on computers at receptions are half ass. Buildings and plans are done half ass. All work and follow up is half ass. If you call some place, they don’t feel like answering. If you come some place for business, they don’t feel like doing it. Lazy, the whole place is lazy. Everyone is above their job no matter what job they do and there is a power trip.  The only people who seem to give a damn are actual arabs.



Why do Jews in Israel treat all Arabs the same? Why do they even call them Arabs? Some are, but many are not. The Druze, the Christians and many of the muslims are clearly not from the Arabian peninsula. This creation of the “other” through the word arab and then treating all regardless of how they perceive Israel as a foreigner seems to suit keeping a “Jewish” Democracy where only the Jews have a democracy and the rest can have freedoms, but slightly smaller freedom by creating a perpetual state of racism. It is different from US where it is codified into laws by racist states, but it is still a perpetual discrimination. Perhaps this is the only way to keep “Jewish” state alive and that those Arabs are the unfortunate “broken eggs”, but this is not sustainable. Or perhaps this is how it is to be a minority in any country. The human soul is equal  and abhors mistreatment due to the choice of god of what parents were the parents of the people. 

Arab towns feel like they are outside of Israel jurisdiction. If you go into one, you’re on your own. They have their own laws and ways. You realize that outside of the cities and Jewish towns, this is still very much the place it once was. The Arab towns have little Hebrew, and look like towns in Palestine: narrow streets without sidewalks or streetlights. It’s like a time machine.


Americans in Israel:

Talk on the phone in buses, a lot, and loudly. You can know all about their lives, zionism and thoughts on israel just by being within earshot, which is within a half the bus. The problem wouldn’t be big if all Israelis spoke on the phone, but they don’t. Most of them keep pretty quiet and just read your message on the phones, making the conversation of American Olim that much louder and somehow irritating because there’s usually an intentionality to how they speak. 

The only Olim that compare to Americans, are the French. Both seem to have expectations that Israel should be like France or America, but with more Jews, and both are very angry that it is not.


Drunk People

Are almost always Russians. How they got here, I don’t know, they can’t leave that’s for sure. They sit around early morning drinking. Young and old. They argue and yell profanity. One is on the bus and told to behave. He starts cursing, always in Russian, always talking in Russian. Yells how he’s going to kick the bus driver and flip the bus. Everyone is quiet, trying not to antagonize. We get off at the next stop.



Given the small amount of land, one would think that Israel would skimp on the parks. But now, they prefer to build up and have more parks. The parks are everywhere and very well cared for. Many include dog parks. Although dog shit in spite of this, is everywhere. I hope it is dog shit.


Get it Done

Israelis have a get-it done mentality. Americans like me like to have things neat. We organize things and get things ready and can’t stand a mess. Israelis on the other hand don’t mind a mess. Things take so long do things here that waiting to things in an organized fashion simple means patience for which there is literally no time for. For instance take my friend Matanya. He could drill holes before screwing in a screw, but it is simpler to hamer it and then screw it in sideways. In the end it is the same cabinet and the time o fix its he assumes is shorter and less mentally exhaustive than planning out the process. He also instead of organizing the car and having more boxes and then using boxes to bring things up is a good idea but it is faster to just throw things in the car, drive the car up to the elevator, throw things in the elevator, bring it up and then throw things into the hallway. In the end it really is faster and in a way less exhaustive because you just get things done.



The visa process is in a way long and short. You get it done on the same day but you have to have the forms. The getting it done on the same day means that it takes a while for each person and because for an entire country there is one person who does the visas, it will take about three to four hours if you don’t arrive at the ministry an hour before it opens. 

What is interesting, is that with a tourist visa, I can find a place to live, get an ID card, get insurance, sign up for University and still not have a visa! In fact, I have to get all those things before I get a visa. 


Upside down land:

Israel is in a way an upside down land. It is a bigger culture shock than most other places because while it is mostly developed, there are so many things that are “backwards” from other countries. Writing is from right to left. The weekend is Friday and Saturday instead of Saturday and Monday. On Saturdays EVERYTHING is closed. So all you can do is get something from a convenience store and get a coffee or a drink. The streets are virtually empty and cars rarely drive and buses completely don’t run. Because the country runs on buses, it means that the streets are full of people who are relaxing. They setup picnics on lawns, and walk around with kids. You start to get used to planning for the free day ahead and actually begin to plan ahead for a day of relaxation. This means that living in a place where you want to relax becomes more important than living in a place where you want to work.  



I spent two years on the bus. So much so, that I learned to hate them and love them enough that I don’t want a car. Buses are magic, for $2 they arrive and teleport you anywhere you want to go. All you do on it is relax, listen to music and podcasts, read books, work or watch the life on and outside the bus.

Buses run everywhere and all the time. They can be 5-10 minutes wait and will get you anywhere in the city within an hour for about $2.50. For about $500 a year a student can have an unlimited pass that gets you anywhere and anytime. Which is a really good deal. Even cross country buses are cheap. It’s $10 max on a train and $5 max to go four hours to Eilat or to Haifa. By contrast it is $40 to go from San Diego to LA by train. 

The bus drivers are like bus drivers anywhere: the drive like crazy people: accelerating and stopping throwing all the people around the bus. They also have no patience, they will rarely stop for someone running and if you don’t jump in immediately because you are answering a question for someone, as I was doing, they will close the door on you and take off. You also have to flag the bus down because every stop has multiple buses stopping there and they won’t stop unless the stop is requested or you wave them down.

There are shade screens on buses, buses have ramps and seatbelts. Buses have buttons on hand rails instead of near window, easier to press stop. Buses have buttons on rails, and there are lots of rails on the buses. Busses don’t rattle like American buses.

Stop names are illuminated so you know when you’re about to get off the stop. They also state the next stop in English, Hebrew and Arabic.

Sometimes when you’re on the bus, and it must feel like what it feels like to be on a spaceship. The entire thing is just shaking as it is barreling down the street.


Coffee shops.

Coffee shops and places to eat are packed all day long starting at seven am. People sit there with families or with newspapers starting at eight am or earlier.  The waiters are not especially nice but extremely honest. I don’t know how or why but one place where they forgot to bring us a pizza, they brought us an extra slice, some coffee and chocolates and refused to take cash. When I left a 200 shekel tip ($70) by accident when I meant to leave a 20, he ran after and gave it back and gave us chocolate. It was beyond amazing.

Chain coffee shops are the exception, not the rule.


Finding a Place to Live.

In US the process in someways feels too long and annoying, when some places require a credit check. Here however, there are no credit checks so a lot of places require you to have multiple cosigners and hefty security deposits. You also have to pay agent fees if its an agent setting up the listing. So you call and you have to figure out if it is an agent or not. If you find a good apartment, it is either through “combina” or connection, or you’d better bring your check book and pay the deposit then and there.


People Yell:

People yell at each other, all the time and everywhere. Perhaps this is why no one takes the yelling seriously, and doesn’t take non-yelling even less seriously. I  will attribute it to the whole Mishpuha syndrome, everyone here is related by only a few degrees, and family members yell at each other. Nothing is held back.



In Israel the best Universities are cheapest and if you are not hard working enough but rich enough, you can go to the expensive crap schools.

In US the better the college, the more you have to pay. Keeps the poor from the nice jobs and the best education.


Window into the future:

When I was first in Israel, I remember all the people on cell phones. Within a year, it was the same in US. Whatever the trend is going to be around the world, Israel will catch it first and so you can easily see what will happen. Perhaps because the bureaucracy is so slow and people are educated and the system is made for quick private development, things take off very very quickly here in the way to make it easier for people where bureaucracy refuses it. Often the government does pitch in however. For instance, the new trend that is everywhere in Tel Aviv are the e-bikes. They are EVERYWHERE, this makes congestion less but also has these fast moving street bikes on roads. All sorts of people ride them: kids, adults to work, adults with three or four seats on a bike with kids to school, bikes with bench seats like a horse and carriage for kids, bikes with little trailers for business people. 

The government built special lanes that are for bikes that are protected from cars in many areas by either having barriers or being built on the actual sidewalk.  Another example is Waze, because the government didn’t plan on the amount of cars here and didn’t create roads which are as well laid out as in spain and marking is free, the people developed maze which makes it easier to have fewer traffic backups by sending people on alternate routes and thus creating a more spread out traffic pattern. The other innovation is the MoveIt app, it’s where you can put in your bus stops and then see the actual buses , saving the unpleasant experience of arriving on time for a bus which already left. Which also makes it so buses don’t have to worry as much about being at a prices places at a precise time and so their movements are a lot more often. New things are e-scooters and bikes for rent. They are everywhere and make movement on shabbat affordable. 


Buildings and Building

Buildings here take a very long time to build. A high rise in US is built within six months, here the building, not permits take years!!! It’s at the pace of Soviet Union. I see same buildings from over a year ago at not much more progress than before. One building had 6 floors built, not it is 20. This is a bit more than one floor a month. Each floor is maybe 50sq meters. Entire forty floor building in us are created in six months which is eight floors a month. This is not the bureaucracy and permits, just building. According to one developer, every since the intifada, they have a hard time with the necessary workers and manpower to build. Even with the holidays and the vacations it seems too slow. On the other hand, they can take down a two to four story building in a night! Every week, I see a building torn down and a new one is begun in its place. It isn’t done for years but they are taking them down. 


Gett vs Uber

There was Uber here, but Gett and Cabs kicked them out. Stated reason: they don’t have the insurance and liability, real reason, Uber undercuts the prices and makes being a cab driver instead of a middle class, a poverty class occupation. I agree with this actually. 


Yom Hashoah all cars stop

at night there are lots of events of story telling

All stores are closed

In south tel aviv, there are drunk people, men pushing women around, 

There are events where people sing and give poetry but no one claps, almost no one takes video or pictures. The feeling is very solemn. 

Whe cars stopped on the Ayalon, the arabs did not stop working and a few cars kept driving, most likely arab. 


Quick Observations

These are one or two line quick thoughts jotted down in the two years. It’s like Israel in a lightning round.

It’s a country with Aspergers, no one notices each other, no one cares about what anyone does or says. If you walk, someone can walk into you or right in front of you, you’re invisible, everyone is invisible.

Dogs without leashes walking around on the beach. Dogs at the mall and buses 

Without language, it is very difficult to work here. Where do you go? What do you do? There are places but it is certainly not easy to make money without Hebrew here. 

Toilet wall separations go all the way up.

Arab towns don’t have Israeli flags, not even Christian ones. Druze do.

A glass breaks during a speech, the whole room yells “mazeltov”

Unisex bathrooms, everywhere.

People don’t tell you if they are not coming to a party. In a way it feels crappy and you wonder why, on the other hand, you’re not bummed the day of.

There are no instructions, just expectations that you know. You’re expected to know the questions you have to ask. 

In Israel, I have learned to lie, and mean it.

Anything can be forgiven with a “rega” gesture (fingers tips pressed together facing up). It says: I’m here for a reason and I will not move and you will have deal with it because it is important 

People call each other boss and king and queen, but only when that person is doing something for them, not the other way around

People mediate all over Tel Aviv. A man on a bench, on the beach, under a tree outside of office buildings. People find a way to meditate here 

Transport varieties :People on bikes and motorcycles with dogs. People on bikes with kids. People on e-scooters in pairs and with dogs.

Nearly all synagogues are orthodox. So there’s no alternative: orthodox or nothing.

Parents carry kids in shoulders all the time

All crosswalks are equipped for the blind

Cops don’t give tickets for j-walking but for not stopping for pedestrians. 

Cats live to lie down in front of entrances, on shooter seats and floor boards and on top of cars. Preferably roof

I can walk into a synagogue any time anywhere. 

Because of the e-bikes, it is common to see someone walk in with a battery. People walk around with the batteries everywhere, shops, gyms, restaurants.

People speak to me in Russian without a second thought.

Coffee shops are full on a Friday morning at 8am

Unlike US, where you can’t walk with a beer but you can walk around with a gun, you can walk around with a beer but you can’t buy and walk around with a gun, unless you have a specified need for it. 


After two years, I keep realizing that US is the upside-down land.


About the Author
Sam Livin was born in Soviet Union and grew up in San Diego. In 2012, he travelled the world photographing Jewish communities publishing a book called "Your Story Our Sipur." Today he continues to write about Israel and Judaism as he lives and studies business and ecology in Tel Aviv.
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