The Tourist's Guide to Survival in Israel

by Idit Golan

To begin with, don't take fright at the crowd undoubtedly assembled to welcome you as you enter the country. Israeli togetherness starts right there, at the airport, as family and friends gather to greet their loved ones coming home from a week of shopping in London or sight-seeing in Paris. Think of it as a pseudo-custom externalizing the warmth, the nearness, the volubility so inseparable from the Israel experience.

We Israelis are accustomed to a warm climate. A Mediterranean nation afraid of getting seared by the heat of the sun, is a hotbed for the hot-blooded. Which is to say that in Israel, you divest yourself of your tie and jacket and whatever else divides between people. Forget the formalities. Here one approaches people and things directly. The buzz-word for acclimatizing to Israel is: "dugri". Calling a spade a spade and prettifying nothing.

Your usual titles and polite forms of address have no place in the normal pattern of speech. Here, we have a sense of camaraderie, we are all "haverim", with the mentality of army buddies of the Palmach (an underground movement that flourished during the British Mandate), even if we have only just met. There is a sense of all being in the same boat, everyone is your brother, even if not in the biological sense.

Greetings may be couched in various languages, from the Arabic "ahlan", sure to be accompanied by a slap on the back, to the American "bye-bye".

However warm the weather, Israelis like touching one another. Physical proximity, the warm touch of a hand, are part of the informal approach, the camaraderie. Corporals may keep new recruits at arm's length, but that is where it ends. Forget about people keeping a respectful distance. And don't bother to take offence at any of the following:

In Israel everybody is in a big hurry, everywhere and at all times. The general idea is to cram a lifetime's business into the space of 24 hours. Which is why we are all so impatient and impulsive and why we converge on wherever there is something going on, even when specifically requested to stay away. After all, in a whole lifetime, one must not only get everything done, one also needs to know everything. So its a good idea to have the following facts at your fingertips:

Places of entertainment, especially in the major towns, are open round the clock or until the last reveller bows out. Israelis are a rare breed who do not include sleep on their agenda. Even in mid-week, pub-crawlers are out in full force, seeking, until well into the small hours, a little refreshment after the hurly-burly of the business day. "The non-stop city" is truly an apt description of Tel-Aviv, calling to mind also Jerusalem, Haifa and other locales offering a lively night-life. In any case, the following recommendations can usefully be borne in mind:

In Israel, everybody is plugged in to everything: to the telephone, to the cellular phone, to news on the hour and flash bulletins on the half hour. Nobody remains anonymous here, but can almost invariably be tracked down and reached by some beeping instrument. So bear in mind:

As for how to dress in public - scanty apparel is fine at the seaside, on the beach of a hot summer's day; but when visiting holy sites or wherever religious elements are likely to be present, something more modest will be appropriate. Generally speaking,Israeli women favour what they call the "sport-elegant" style. The collar-and-tie and three piece suit is by no mean de rigueur in business environments, please note.

Conversational dynamics - Israelis ask lots of questions and they like to get direct, honest-to-the-point-of-impertinence answers. Leave your vague, polite, diplomatic evasions at home.

Don't be too thin-skinned. As every cynical, swashbuckling, deftly-parrying Israeli conversational fencer knows, it's no use taking things to heart. Wide eyed candour doesn't wash here. And let sincerely bewildered beware.

Not a human iceberg but melts in the warmth of our sun. You may have arrived only yesterday - but today you are one of us. Do some research among the natives, find out what we mean by "sahbak" - and start practising that way of life.