French Israel

Tuesday, September 07, 2004

One year as an Israeli. One year of developing deep relationships with people whom I never knew before 2003, the large marjority of whom also left their homes, somewhere, to come here.

One year of identity crises that make the act of getting dressed each morning a Statement that I never intended to make.

One year of exploring my ancient roots in an educational environment that was built not-so-anciently in Vilna. (Okay, so that one is on the backburner now, until I can find something better. But I did it.)

One year of geographical exploration in this fascinating city and in this beautiful country, which instantly clears up any hint of regret.

One year of demonstrating the poverty of my writing for everyone with an internet connexion.

And one year of developing the fine art of compartmentalising everyone I see into neat socio-ethnic-religious-hashkafic categories -- only to realise in the end what a pointless exercise that is.

It would be trite and utterly unoriginal to remark at this point, "You know, I think the place is rubbing off on me." But I will make one observation about the national character here.

For most of my life, I would never have argued with anyone about anything. I hate confrontations. Unless someone decided to challenge me continually, and bring into question whether my ongoing existence on this planet is worthwhile (close family members, for example), I have usually left the argumentative persons alone. I keep friends that way. A few decide to push the issue; they haven't tasted blood yet, and they have a point to prove. They are not my friends or family anymore.

Much of my heartache in France, besides having to leave, was that strangers would lash out at each other, if one did something slightly convenient to the other. That is on the street, where otherwise they completely ignore each other. (Just to set the record straight: I am speaking of Lyon; in Paris people stare shamelessly, and will also yell. In the South people are generally openly friendly with strangers, but genuine relationships take longer to build. End of French lesson, for today.) If you are the object of derision, it makes you wish you could parry their insult with something witty. Had the strangers been a store-owner and a client, though, the former would have treated the latter as his Most Honoured Guest. Truly cordial and amicable relationships can develop in this setting, with repeated exposure. But strangers are fair game. I would have to keep reminding myself that it's nothing personal, but I was often hurt.

Israelis are not as polite as the French.

This story is about nothing important, but it has ended up showing me something surprising. At the Ulpan there are free English-language newspapers distributed each day. Okay, it's the HaAretz / International Herald Tribune, but I can't complain. It's free and some of it is surprisingly good. So now I must get one each day. I'm hooked.

The way it works is, each morning they are delivered to the guard station at the entrance, and the guard gives them to someone who brings them to the classrooms. A smaller stack of Jerusalem Posts are delivered to those students who have paid subscriptions.

Many mornings during the break between classes, I glance inside the guard station. The regular guard is a young woman; I ask her if there are still newspapers. If there are still some there, she tells me to go ahead and take one, or to take the whole stack to the classrooms. If she's not in her station, but somewhere else on the grounds, she tells me to go to the guard station and take them. I smile and say Todah, she smiles and says Bevakashah, and life is good.

And then there is another guard, a guy with black spikey hair, who thinks otherwise. The first time, I asked him (in Hebrew) if there are any newspapers there today.


"Then what about those?" I say, pointing to the stack of IHTs.

"You can't have one."

"Those are for people with a subscription?" I ask, guessing he may have the matter a bit confused, and that I will help him sort it out.

"No, those are for people (anashim)." End of answer. I am not sure what he means by that, but a talmudic scholar he is not. Perhaps he is just not exacting in his speech.

I tell him that up until now, this was not the case. "Perhaps it changed today", I suggested, even giving him an excuse.

"There are none for you."

The next day, I try again.

"Are there papers in English today?"


"Those are for other people?" I ask, pointing.

"They're for people who live here."

Well, that's for sure not true, but it's pointless to argue.

Until yesterday. I go by the guard station again. Empty. Stack of papers inside. Door locked. Window open. I go for the window.

Here he comes running, yelling in Hebrew, "What are you doing?!"

Instinctively, I stay calm and start fabricating a position, "Checking to see if someone is here."


"No one is here."

I realise now that I am not making sense, and that I'm arguing in Hebrew, which is probably good for my language skills, and that... Wait a minute...

What am I doing getting into an argument? And why does it feel so good to challenge his authority? And why is there no chance whatsoever that I'm going to concede to tell him the truth? And why do I feel like insulting him further? If only I could come up with the words...

"So what, no one was inside! Does that give you the right to open the window?!" he yells.

I walk away, saying, "Zeh lo habayah shelakh", "It's not your problem", in the feminine. It was a grammar mistake, inexplicable, but then I was satisfied with it. I guess there's no greater thrill for six-year-old boys in an argument than to call each other a girl.

Yeah, six-year-old boys.

For a friggin' newspaper.

Damned Israelis. Look what one year living among them has done to me.

PinḼas Ivri 13:58


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