Food, Manners and Unrequited Love: What Every Visitor to Israel Needs to Know
In previous installments of this series, I've suggested famous (and not so famous) must-sees on your trip to Israel. You won't want to miss your chance to float in the Dead Sea, snorkel with exotic fish in Eilat and fire a gun or two at Caliber 3 in Gush Etzion.
Now, onto some helpful hints and observations about everyday cultural cornerstones like food, language and manners.
PLUS: a crash course on words -- like "settlement," "refugee camp" and "checkpoint" -- that don't mean what you think they mean, at least in Israel.
The Jews wandered in the desert for 40 years because they couldn't decide where to eat.
Food is a very big deal in Jewish culture, so it's not surprising that you can eat well in Israel, and as cheaply or as expensively as you wish or can afford.
Contrary to what you may think, not all restaurants there are kosher.
Many people believe that kosher food, wherever it is served, is healthier and cleaner. I for one do get this sensation when I'm in Israel, that somehow the food is fresher and more carefully handled. When it comes to kosher food, a bug on your lettuce isn't just a faux pas -- it's a serious violation of the law.
Every hotel offers a breakfast buffet. It's an Israeli institution, and differs little from a similar spread in North America except for the addition of chilled fish like herring, and the absence of bacon and ham.
In fact, the presence of dairy at these buffets means that no meat -- pork or otherwise -- will be on the menu. Milk and meat are not combined because -- to put it simplistically -- milk represents life and meat represents death. (So while there are McDonald's in Israel, they don't serve cheeseburgers. Coffeemate was invented so that Jews could enjoy "cream" in their coffee while eating, say, a steak.)
One dish that's standard fare in Israel, and that we fell in love with, is shakshuka. "Dr. Shakshuka's" restaurant was closed the day we visited Jaffa, which is too bad because it is world famous:
We went to the charming Nelly's Kitchen instead, and really enjoyed it.
In the evening, across Israel, a "switch" takes place in restaurants and dining rooms: meat is offered but dairy is not. The types of cutlery at your table setting will be different, too.
Expect your lunch or dinner order to come with bountiful plates of appetizers like humus and salad. THEN your main meal arrives. Keep this in mind when ordering (and eating.)
Since I'm from Toronto, I'm familiar with the cuisine of most cultures, and have long been a falafel fanatic. The falafel is the "hamburger" of Israel, so be sure to try one. If you're a bland "meat and potatoes" person, this and other Israeli dishes may be an acquired taste.
Starbucks isn't there yet, but the Israeli equivalent -- Aroma -- is arguably superior anyhow. You get a little piece of dark chocolate with your cup of coffee, and their sandwiches are exceptional.
In Jerusalem's Old City, treat yourself to a poppy seed bun or other fresh pastry sold by the Muslim merchants who push their wares along on old wooden carts.
LANGUAGE AND MANNERS
In my experience, most Israels "understand" English but their fluency is lopsided:
Either they understand you but struggle to reply, or can speak English well but have a hard time understanding you.
If you hail from a big North American city, you already know the drill: Be patient. Speak slowly and clearly. Don't expect strangers to understand your cultural references or jokes.
Speaking of which: The Israeli sense of humor tends toward the dry and straightfaced, and will leave some travelers puzzled or even offended.
For instance, when I mentioned to a hotel front desk clerk that I couldn't understand a recorded message on my room phone because I don't speak Hebrew, he shot back, "Why not? How dare you?"
He was joking around, but not everybody will respond well to that kind of ribbing.
Israeli's are also notoriously blunt to the point of rudeness. Customer service isn't as cloying and obsequious as you may be used to, especially if you live in the Southern or Midwestern United States.
"Civility is not a high priority," as Barry Rubin delicately phrases it in his book Israel: An Introduction:
With no history of an oppressed peasantry or working class that "knew its place," Israelis are notoriously obstinate, egalitarian, and insistent on their personal rights. The lack of a well-developed system of etiquette derives from the lack of a subservient or class conscious past. (...)
Israeli society's pioneer ethos, familiar aspect, and contempt for snobbishness or class distinction is reflected in its high levels of informality. With the exception of the Haredim, most Israelis wear casual clothing. The ubiquitous Western suit and tie stay in the closet, even for weddings and funerals. (...) Punctuality is not a high priority. It is not unusual for events and even television programming to start later than scheduled.
SETTLEMENTS, REFUGEE CAMPS AND CHECK POINTS
Jewish "settlers" live on "disputed" territory in varying levels of comfort. We drove through Ariel, which looks no different than a typical Western suburb; it even has its own university.
Since there are virtually no houses in Tel Aviv, just apartments, some Israelis live in "settlements" like Ariel and commute elsewhere to work. The cost of living in a "settlement" like Ariel is (according to our guide) about 75% less.
To get in and out of Ariel, we drove through one of those dreaded "checkpoints." This consisted of an armed guy in a booth, waving us through. Wooo, scary!
In contrast, I have never crossed the U.S./Canadian border without being hassled by officious, ignorant, tyrannical border guards.
Other settlers insist on roughing it, like the couple we met near Hebron. The Federmans are raising their ten children in conditions reminiscent of the Appalachians before the Tennessee Valley Authority.
They figure it is pointless to build a more substantial house than the one they live in, because the Israeli government has destroyed their previous homes. They have also been charged with "child neglect" and other tricks the state uses to harass "troublemakers" -- tricks not limited to Israel, of course.
If you think "Palestinian" "refugees" live in tents or shacks, think again.
They often don't finish building the top floor because as long as the house is "unfinished," they don't have to pay taxes on it. Otherwise, some of their houses probably look bigger and nicer than yours -- and you're paying for theirs through foreign aid.
Our guide joked that some "Palestinians" are 140 years old. That is, UNRAW doles out money to individual "Palestinians," which would naturally be cut off when that person dies. Just as naturally, their families don't file death certificates, so the money keeps coming.
To poorly paraphrase Lenin:
"You may be very interested in Israel, but Israel may not be very interested in you."
Just as there are anti-American Americans, there are Israelis who don't share your passion for their country, especially if you are a Christian Zionist.
Speaking of which:
Dear Evangelical Protestants (like the ones I met in Israel):
Would it kill you to read a book one day? No, the Catholic Church is not "planning to take over Jerusalem." I thought I'd heard every anti-Catholic conspiracy theory -- did you know the Jesuits killed Lincoln? -- but that was a new one on me. The Catholic Church I know fairly intimately can barely run its own affairs.
For everyone who welcomed Glenn Beck on his recent visit to Israel, I suspect there were a dozen Israelis who considered him a naive goyim buffoon who secretly wants to convert Jews to Mormons or something.
Christians are certainly welcomed because they bring in mega-tourist bucks, but don't be under any illusions: the Orthodox Jews shuffling past your church group while you're reenacting the Stations of the Cross may not be thinking the most charitable, ecumenical thoughts.
Yes, there are t-shirts for sale in hotel gift shops that read "Don't Worry America -- Israel Has Your Back!" But you'll never see an actual Israeli wearing one.
One thing that did work in our favor was being Canadian. Our staunchly pro-Israel Prime Minister is much more popular in Israel than he is in much of his home country.
I hope Americans no longer sew maple leafs on their backpacks to get better treatment in Europe. However, I'm tempted to advise you to do that when you visit Israel.
Whatever you decide to wear, however, be sure to go. You won't regret it.
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