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First Person Commercialism, Consumerism Clashing with History in Israel

January 27, 2005
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Standing over the light of the menorah, my roommate and I belted out the Chanukah classic “Maoz Tsur” and admired the flickering lights in the surrounding windows. It was one of those “only in Israel” moments that sweetens my life in Jerusalem. Suddenly we heard a sharp knock on the door. When I answered, a teenage boy shoved a colorful piece of cardboard into my hand and dashed up the stairs toward the other apartments in the building.

In the middle of the sheet were blessings over the Chanukah lights printed in elegant Hebrew lettering. But lining the outside border were advertisements for Burgers Bar, Pizza Larry and many other local restaurants and shops.

My roommate was amused by the ingenuity of the maneuver. I was irritated.

“This is a complete exploitation of the holiday,” I said. “If they want to hand out fliers that’s fine, but to put blessings on an ad? Come on. They’re using sanctity as a marketing ploy.”

Considering that I was weaned on the idea that the holiday season was synonymous with religious exploitation, I shouldn’t have been so shocked. But I don’t expect Israel to mirror the South Florida shopping district of my childhood.

Unfortunately, I saw the incident as yet another example of Western consumerism that is eroding Israel’s uniqueness.

I never ran from America to Israel; my immigration came through love of Israel, not disdain for American life. But I’ve come to realize through the intrusion of ad-covered Egged public buses and a store-sponsored menorah at the Western Wall that what felt so comforting here, and what I feel slowly slipping away, were large pockets of society more or less devoid of rabid consumerism.

I never feel the need here to keep up with the Cohens’ electronic gadget or new fad sneakers. The Old City stone doesn’t reflect the image of an out-of-season shirt the way Manhattan glass does.

It’s probably because Israelis don’t have as much money in general as Americans, but for me less has always meant more. In the land of our heritage we can explore a sense of identity based on the continuation of our rich history, not on brand names.

But over the past five years, during my initial visits and then after I made aliyah, I couldn’t help but notice the growth of American fast-food chains like Pizza Hut, as well as the surge of Israeli chain stores and restaurants.

New super-supermarkets like Zol Mahadrin sell everything from kugel to kipot. How can the makolet — the small corner market — compete?

This trend makes me feel that the Holy City of Jerusalem will be reduced to just another star on Sam Walton’s map of worldwide conquest though bargain Pampers and bedroom slippers.

What will happen when big business closes down the mom-and-pop stores? These shops and restaurants represent so much of what makes Israel unique.

Not long ago, my fiancee and I walked into a small hardware store on Dizengoff St. in Tel Aviv. We started chatting with the owners, an older Moroccan mother and her middle-aged daughter, a secular-looking pair, about the part I needed.

Before long they asked me where I was from and where I was living. When I told them I lived in Jerusalem, the mother started kissing her fingertips and holding them above her head, looking up to the ceiling and praising God.

“Oh, how I love Jerusalem. How I love to visit my kids that live there,” the mother cried out. “Do you know what merit it is to live in Jerusalem? Baruch haShem, baruch haShem.”

In response to her questions, I told her that my fiancee and I had gotten engaged only a few days earlier. Both women got up from their seats and for the next 10 minutes rattled off blessing after blessing for a long and healthy life in Israel.

We walked out glowing. It’s not the type of thing that happens in the Wal-Mart hardware aisle.

For me it’s not only the land that makes Israel unique; it’s also the wonderful people who I find many times in these privately owned shops.

Where else but the Jerusalem open-air market can someone experience the unique Israeli charm of seeing a grown man yell out “shekel pitot” — pita bread for one shekel — at the top of his lungs, veins bulging in his neck, the cigarette balanced in his mouth capped with a long ash ready to fall?

It’s a vision, albeit slightly grotesque, that I find far more pleasing than another chain grocery.

I can’t say that Israel’s Westernization doesn’t have its good points. I’m able to make my living — and waste massive amounts of time — using a high-speed Internet connection. When I need a new pair of running shoes, it’s nice to see familiar brands, though the prices are familiarly high.

And as much as I despise the thought of it, when the time comes to furnish an apartment, I’ll probably head to — Ikea, which recently opened a store in Netanya.

Still, it makes me ill to see an Egged bus plastered with advertising posters that show pictures of dollar bills. Why would Israel sacrifice its uniqueness to be a low-grade photocopy of the United States?

I remember Prime Minister Ariel Sharon speaking at my aliyah absorption ceremony about the Jewish state’s need to represent a real, unique and positive alternative for the Jewish people in order to attract them of their own free will.

But where is this uniqueness being nurtured? If the only difference between Israel and Florida is the 20- minute wait for a security check at Israeli malls, then perhaps the vision of a Jewish state has gone awry.

As Sharon himself understands, Israel must stand for something unique, and it’s that uniqueness that I felt when I first came that hypnotized me. It’s the history flowing from the ancient stone to the modern highways, and the story of the journey of return on the faces of everyone in the street.

Yes, it can be a modern state, but the benefits of modernity should be weighed against the loss of national individuality.

To maintain our uniqueness, we must appreciate the beauty in the corner makolet. We must insist that sponsorship should never appear near the Western Wall, and strive for a national identity that fuses the best of modernity with the foundation of our history.

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