Israel’s National Pastime

No, it’s not football, which I was told growing up is really called soccer. Actually, it shouldn’t be called football anyway since the players also use their heads (well, some of them do), chests, bellies and other parts of their anatomy to get the ball into the goal. No, it’s not basketball either because the time that the ball is in the basket is far less than the time it is being dribbled (ycch, horrible word, reminds me of feeding my babies) and tossed between the participants. Strangely enough, in Hebrew, the word for “ball” is also used for bullet and pill. But I don’t think that a game named “foot pill” or “basket bullet” would really make much sense.

Israelis are great sports fans-you can always tell by the yelling and screaming of the fans (here, it could really mean fanatic), the waving of team banners and the death threats made to players who screw up. Football is so popular here, it is even allowed to play on Shabbat-and I never see haredim opposing the games because most of them are too busy betting on the games or sneaking into the house of an apikoros ( a Jew who owns a TV, in their civilization) to watch the TV in secret.

So, what it our true national pastime? Well, I’ll explain. Yesterday morning I was in the Hadar Mall in Talpiot, which is a neighborhood in Jerusalem. I accompanied my wife to her job (hehehehehe, HER job) early because we were going to meet up with a friend for dinner later and I really didn’t want to shlep on two buses. So I knew I was in for a three or four wait and I figured, well, if I sit at home I’ll only be watching the clock on when to leave and trying to find a good excuse to stay home.

So, I went into the mall and there was an oasis-the Aroma coffee restaurant. Now, let me explain, Aroma is a national chain of coffee shops that serves salads, sandwiches, soups and, of course coffee. But, to a former New Yorker like me, it is pronounced “kawfee” and this always leads to me being served by an English speaking Israeli who still finds the time to smirk at my pronunciation before looking at me and asking “Brooklyn?” Now, this is a personal insult as I was born and raised in “da Bronx” and I really take umbrage in being accused of coming from that borough which, as any Bronxite knows, is on the wrong side of the river.

But enunciating the word “coffee” is the least of my problems-you see, in my day (oy, hitting the back half of the golf course of years) coffee came as either black or regular. Black, no sugar, no milk, or regular with milk and sugar and then you had to ask for it if you wanted more or less milk to make it either light or dark. Oh, you had to ask if there was any, OMG, saccharin!!!!!

Coffee should never be named in as many languages there are in the universe-latte, cappucino, frappuccino, espresso, Turkish, afuch (upside down, with the milk on the bottom, Bizarro-coffee) , demi-tasse or filter coffee (does this mean the water for the other coffees is sewage?). For G-d’s sake, all I want is a “cuppa kawfee!” Which for some reason, is known as “Coffee Americano”-strange because the noun for American is “America’i”-guess we were all made into Latinos.

So, I finally get my drink (I’ll spare you another caffeine filled narrative) and I begin the hunt for a table. Now, we are coming to the purpose of this erratic missive-there are tables with anywhere from two seats to six seats and, inevitably, there is only one person sitting at a table for six. Now, if it wasn’t around nine in the morning and the mall filled with shoppers, kids playing hooky from school, young mothers with screaming infants in strollers (the babies in the strollers, the mothers are screaming for them to shut up) and old folks who, having not much else to do but listen to their arteries hardening, occupying almost every place to sit. Now, that, in and of itself is fine. After all, this is Israel where everyone believes in their unalterable right to always be in the right wherever and whenever it suits them.

Anyway, I find an empty table with only two chairs, and I sit down, open my book and wait for the time to pass before I must meet my wife at HER job. Now, as a keen observer of my fellow Israelis I am always awestruck by the differences that I see. People who I’d swear were Scandinavian blondes (oh, only the women) , Irish redheads and Ethiopians and definitely Russians because they are drinking tea out of glasses, but unfortunately, no lumps of sugar are available. How can you be expected to sip hot tea without a lump of sugar between your teeth?

What is more amusing, are the people sitting alone who keep on talking and there is not another person at their table. I was always taught that folks who talk to themselves are usually a bit crazy, or like Lou Costello said “I talk to myself out loud cause I gotta hear what I gotta say.” Then, there are the folks, who are seemingly friends cause they are pushing two tables together, sometimes with baby strollers surrounding them like a fortress wall, and chatting about all kinds of things. But, then there are the older men, probably all veterans of the IDF and one war or another, arguing over politics, the elections, the “situation” (Israelis always talk, yell, scream, prevaricate, obfuscate and convince them selves that he, or she, ought to be the Minister of Defense) while cursing and shouting in the foul languages of the combined national tongues of over 102 countries from which many of them came. Really amusing and sometimes I cannot help but laugh when I recognize a real obscene gesture or word which brings back memories of my youth (being from the Bronx, I had to know at least three languages to do my food shopping). This often brings me a stare or a grin from one of these men who could probably twist me into a pretzel.

I don’t know what the Hebrew phrase is for “playing hooky” which we always said was cutting out of school, but these kids seem to have no fear of a truant officer-do they have them in Israel? Or, they are not afraid of being spotted by a parent, or a friend of their parents who would know that they ought to be in a classroom, not trolling through the mall. Maybe this fearlessness makes them into good soldiers…….

So, what is Israel’s real national pastime-simply put, it is living every moment of everyday to the fullest possible second. Israelis, I have discovered have beaten the greatest fear of all, being afraid to enjoy life without guilt, or apology for being who they are. Surrounded by bloodthirsty enemies, threatened daily with extinction, insulted by fair weather friends and castigated by vicious foes, they still go to the mall, occupy full tables with one person, sit and drink coffee for hours and read their books or newspapers, and bring their newborn babes to the coffee shop.

Our national pastime is not passing the time, but using the time to its greatest advantage. We all live with a biological clock, no one lives forever and our tiny Jewish country is already three millennia old and still vibrant, strong and stubborn. Just like the Israeli people-just like me.

About the Author
Irwin was born in New York City and is now retired. He lives in Maaleh Adumim since making aliyah 7 years ago.