NEW YORK (JTA) — In honor of Israel’s 62nd birthday, I’ll forgo the expected Op-Ed about Israeli government corruption, the Bibi-Obama drama, or the Israeli Rabbinate’s stranglehold on marriage and divorce.
Instead, I offer this love letter to Israel: “Top 10 tiny details about Israel that make it the most wonderful country on earth.”
10. Egged Bus #394: The midnight ride from Tel Aviv to Eilat. The trip begins in the gray-stucco slums of south Tel Aviv. Two hours later, you’re rolling through the desert beneath a blanket of stars. You crack open the window. The desert smells dry and ancient, like an attic. At dawn, you pull into Eilat as the city comes to life.
9. The way Israelis refuse to cross the street on a red light. Drivers blare their horns the instant the light turns green. Yet pedestrians refuse to cross the street until the sign turns green. I’ve witnessed this phenomenon at 3:00 a.m., the streets bare and not a car in sight.
8. The Jewish soul of even the most secular Israelis. I served in the Israeli Army with kibbutz kids who were so anti-religious that they never even had a bar-mitzvah. But on Friday nights, as the brigade sung the Sabbath Kiddush en masse, I could see my secular comrades mouthing the words.
7. Flush handles on Israeli toilets. Almost all Israeli toilets, both public and in homes, have two flush handles — one for “light” loads, and one for heavy ones. This saves Israel’s most precious natural resource: water. And it’s genius.
6. Drop-dead gorgeous Israeli soldiers. The men are hunky, the women beautiful. Try not to drool as you watch them strut down Ben Yehudah Street in their olive-green uniforms, M-16s slung across their backs. It’s not so much their physical beauty that charms us as what they embody: Jewish power.
5. Shuk Ha-Carmel on Friday afternoons. So many things about Israel drive me mad. The bureaucracy is crippling. Government offices operate when they want, for as long (or short) as they want, usually something like 8 a.m. until noon Mondays, Wednesdays and every other Thursday. Each week, another group goes on strike — schoolteachers, garbage men, postal workers, phone operators, cable guys, bus drivers, doctors, nurses, paramedics, airport baggage guys, and the old men in blue jumpsuits who walk the streets of Tel Aviv stabbing pieces of trash with meter-long spears have all struck in the past year — so the country never runs at full power.
The Knesset, Israel’s 15-party parliament, is trapped in a state of perpetual gridlock. And yet, when I step into the Carmel Market and hear the shopkeepers barking their wares, smell the mixture of frying lamb, goat cheese, and human sweat, and watch the people line up to buy flowers for Shabbat, I remember why I love Israel so much. It’s the excitement of the place, but also the Middle Easterness of it — the barking, the bargaining, the haggling that’s at once friendly and brutal. At pushcarts and stalls, middle-aged men with gold chains and raspy cigarette voices sell mangoes, lemons, whole and quarter chickens, cow lungs, cow tongues, cow testicles, sheep brains, 50-plus varieties of fish, calculators, knockoff Nikes, carnations, sponges, girdles, batteries, and men’s and ladies’ underwear.
Friday afternoons, with only a couple of hours until sundown, the peddlers shout their last-minute pre-Sabbath bargains: “Tangerines, 1 shekel, 1 shekel!” “Pita, hummus, chickpeas– yallah! Shabbat, Shabbat!” Whenever I walk through the souk, I think about all those American diplomats who call Israel the America of the Middle East. If those diplomats really want to understand Israel, they should leave their fancy Jerusalem hotels and take a stroll through the Carmel Market.
4. Chocolate milk in a sack. Half a liter of Kibbutz Yotvateh chocolate milk sealed in a palm-sized plastic bag that you rip open with your teeth and then squeeze, causing the milk to shoot into your mouth in a way that makes you feel like you’re drinking straight from the udder of a chocolate cow. Need I say more?
3. The incredible bond between Israelis. Maybe it’s a remnant of shtetl life in Europe, or perhaps it has something to do with living so close to your enemy. Whatever the reason, Israelis act as if everyone is everyone else’s next-door neighbor. The first time I experienced this unique bond was the week I arrived in Israel to begin my army service. I was driving to Tel Aviv in a rental car when a guy pulled up next to me at a stoplight and beeped his horn. “Hey, achi!” he called. “My girlfriend’s thirsty. You got water?” Beside me, on the passenger seat, was a bottle of water. But it was half empty.
I held up the bottle. “It’s already open,” I said.
“No problem,” he replied, and stuck out his hand.
A week later, I was at my girlfriend, Dorit’s, family’s apartment with her parents. It was dinnertime and we had ordered pizza. Finally, after two hours, the pizza guy showed up on his motor scooter. He was disheveled and sopped with sweat. “I got lost,” he whimpered.
“So come inside! Sit!” said Dorit’s mother, Tzionah. “Coffee or tea?”
“Coffee,” said the pizza guy. “Milk and two sugars.”
While Tzionah made the coffee, Dorit’s father, Menashe, opened the pizza box. “Please take.” He offered a slice. The pizza guy waved him off. “Nu! You’re offending me!” said Menashe. “What’s your name?”
“Oren,” said the delivery guy.
“Oren. I insist. Eat.”
And I’ll be damned if Oren the pizza guy didn’t sit down at the kitchen table and eat the pizza he’d just delivered. As we ate, I thought about all those porno movies where the lonely housewife invites the pizza boy inside and seduces him on the kitchen table. In the Israeli version of the story, the pizza boy doesn’t make love to the housewife. Instead, he sits down with the family and eats pizza.
2. Dropping off a passenger at Ben-Gurion Airport. You pull up to the Departure door, hug your loved ones goodbye, and watch them walk into the terminal. Then you inhale a breath of sweet Israeli air, look up at the cloudless Tel Aviv sky, and think, “They have to leave…but I get to stay in Israel.”
1. ____________________________________________ . I leave this one up to you. What do you love most about Israel? E-mail me firstname.lastname@example.org and I’ll post your responses on the blog page of my Web site.
(Joel Chasnoff is a stand-up comedian and the author of “The 188th Crybaby Brigade: A Skinny Kid From Chicago Fights Hezbollah,” about his year as a combat soldier in the Israeli army. View photographs from his army service and meet the characters from Joel’s book at www.joelchasnoff.com.)