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
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
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
Being addressed simply by name, stripped of any
Mr., Mrs. or Ms. Individuals, even if older or more
distinguished, are not addressed in the plural.
The use of informal or slang expressions, even
between the scarcely-acquainted, or at official
get-togethers. Add "yallah" to your vocabulary.
A slap on the back isn't considered violence,
nobody is beating on you, it's just a pleasant way
of saying hello.
The shop assistant who is in no hurry to greet you
or serve you. It's not that he or she doesn't like
your looks, that is just the way things are.
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:
Israelis are road-hogs, not to say menaces. Rules
calling for overtaking on the left and driving
slowly on the right are not strictly observed, and
you may well encounter nature lovers and landscape
gazers wending their unholy way up the road,
inhaling lungsful of pine scented air in the left
The cacophony of blaring and honking horns you will
hear on the road is just part of the auditory
environment. Don't be alarmed. You'll learn when to
take notice and when to just blithely ignore it.
Right of way, as far as the Israeli driver is
concerned, is a mere recommendation. Do not delude
yourself that the white triangle is an agreed sign.
Israelis are not good at lining up in orderly
single file. Whoever can, jumps the queue. Trying
to flag a taxi? Stick out your hand, and grab the
cab when he draws up. Oh, and make sure the driver
turns on the meter as you drive off. You needn't
tip him. Waiting to get into a movie? Be prepared
for a lot of more or less good natured pushing and
Boarding buses is a national sport in which the
winners are those who manage to squeeze in before
the drivers shuts the automatic doors and gets
going. Forget about who was first in line. Nobody
takes us for a ride! What are elbows and shoulders
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:
At about 2 a.m. of a Saturday morning in Tel Aviv,
traffic is likely to be backed up everywhere.
Plenty of patience may help; otherwise, why not
just hole up in your hotel room...
If you are awaiting an opportune moment to get far
from the madding crowd, go to town on a day when
Maccabee Tel-Aviv is playing basket-ball in the
European Cup Finals.
Israel's famous salad will be found listed on the
menu as "Arab salad".
Contrary to what your may have thought, not all
restaurants are kosher. If kosher food is important
to you, double check the restauranteur's
The normal tip for your friendly waiter/waitress is
10% - 12% unless the menu or bill specifies that
prices include service.
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:
Other than in businesses and offices, the proper
way to answer the phone is: "Hallo" - not your
phone number or your surname.
Cellular telephones ringing in the middle of
business meetings, lectures or conventions - yes,
you'll find plenty of that. I refrain from
describing this as a generally accepted custom.
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.