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A Expat Adventure in Israel

This post is reblogged from my company blog site.

I recently returned from an eight month expat assignment in Israel. Technically, it was my husband’s assignment, but since my organization also has a presence in Israel I had the opportunity to work there as well. It was a wonderful opportunity to immerse ourselves in another culture, expose our five-year-old son to some amazing experiences, and expand our professional skills. We lived in Netanya, 20 minutes north of Tel Aviv. My husband worked in Yakum and I split my time between Haifa and Petah Tikva.

People often ask about the experience, wondering about what distinguishes Israeli culture from American culture. My best answer is that it is a culture of juxtaposition. It is a very young country in a very ancient land. A landscape of lavish beaches and harsh desert. A society steeped in technology and old world mysteries. It is also a country that treasures and loves children. Real family values are supported here: high quality early childhood education for all, flexible work schedules so parents can care for children. I even heard a rumor that nannies are better paid than doctors!

The Israel that most Westerners see on the television is one of rockets fired from Gaza and protests in Jerusalem. While that is certainly a reality, what isn’t shown is the day-to-day lives of Israelis. Name any major high-tech, sports apparel, or pharmaceutical company. They have a presence in Israel. There are creative minds everywhere solving the problem of coaxing the most out of the “Land of Milk and Honey.” Huge strides in agriculture and water management are being made all of the time. When the rockets do fall, they pick them selves up and carry on. The way they celebrate their Memorial and Independence Days is very symbolic of this. A day of mourning is followed by a day of celebration.

I should add here that I felt very safe living in Central Israel. We were far from Gaza and knew what to do in an emergency. Our family policy for safety included:

  • No traveling to or through the West Bank
  • No traveling within missile range of Gaza
  • No border crossings into neighboring Arab countries
  • Avoiding large crowds
  • Avoiding public transportaion

Shopping in Israel is a real challenge for an American. They don’t have what we consider to be a full size department store like a Macy’s or even a Target. You have to shop in much smaller stores with limited and specialized inventory. I had to go to three different stores to get everything on my son’s school supplies list. That doesn’t sound too bad until I tell you that there were only six  items on the list. Add to that the parking nightmare that is Israel and it all becomes very overwhelming. You learn very quickly when the best times to shop are and where to get what. Israel certainly made me a better cook. You can’t find canned soup there. If you need broth for a recipe, you have to make it. Making a traditional American Thanksgiving meal was a challenge. There was wonderful amount of fresh produce available. In the absence of my usual brands, we ate significantly less processed food. Most everything was fresh or frozen. I’ve continued those shopping and cooking habits at home in the US.

Israel is a land of good eating. There is always an abundance of fresh produce in the supermarkets and shuks. There are spices in a rainbow of colors, thick fluffy pita, fresh falafel, flavorful shawarma…  I guarantee the best pita and breads in the world come from a vendor who sets up a table in Canyon Poleg on Fridays only. The braided challah is to-die-for-melt-in-your-mouth delicious. There is, however, a striking shortage of Mexican restaurants.

The (very) direct communication style of Israelis can be misinterpreted as pushy or rude. The Hebrew language is very concise with one word often having up to 3 meanings. Israelis don’t mince words. They don’t beat around the bush. There aren’t enough words in the Hebrew language to do that. They get to the point quickly. They are also some of the friendliest and most helpful people you will ever meet. If they realize you need help they will stop what they are doing and stay with you until they feel you have what you need. Then they will “cut” in front of you in a line. Lines don’t work quite the same there as they do in the US. 🙂 They take care of each other too, in an everyday no-big-deal way that you only see in small towns in the US. They are also bound by the experience of the Holocaust. Israel is the only country that pauses for 2 minutes of silence for Holocaust Memorial Day. It was the most profound emotional experience I have had since 9/11.

Israelis all seem to know each other. There are 7.8 million people living in a space the size of New Jersey (not nearly as much of it is as inhabitable as New Jersey), but two Israelis who meet for the first time will ask each other questions until they figure out how they are connected. Where did you grow up? What school did you go to? Where do you work? This will go on until they can come up with a mutual acquaintance. This actually happened to me the first week we were there. I participated in the first annual Israeli Dragon Boat Championship with a local team. We won first place in the women’s division. I proudly wore my medal to lunch after with some friends and a stranger congratulated me, mentioning that he had friends on the Haifa Lions team (not racing that day). I said, “Oh yeah, I know a couple of them through facebook.” and instantly we identified a mutual friend.

As I alluded above, were able to chase some personal passions during our time there. My husband found a roller hockey team in Netanya to play with. I found a dragon boat team in Tel Aviv. Both teams welcomed us with open arms and weekly tried to convince us to make aliyah and move to Israel for good. Israelis are proud of their country and encourage others to make a life there. Being a young nation, they are constantly trying to “recruit” talented people to make Israel a stronger country.

The biggest adjustment, really was the Sunday through Thursday work week. It takes a while to adapt to the flow of weekly life and the fact that (depending where you are) most things shut down between Friday afternoon and Saturday evening. Liberal cities like Tel Aviv never shut down, while very Religious cities like Tiberias completely shut down. It was always a thrill to remember I had Fridays off, but such a bummer to realize on Saturday night that I had to go to work in the morning. When my colleagues in the US would come into the office on Monday, I had already put in two full days of work. Then there was the concept of Tuesday as “hump day”. That was weird. The worst part was when people in the US would forget the differences and schedule a 6:00 PM meeting on my Thursday night… which would be the equivalent of scheduling a Friday night meeting for US attendees. Friday night (beginning of Shabbot) is a night  for staying in with your family, eating a big meal, and playing games. For all but the orthodox, Saturday (Shabbot) is a day for road trips with your family, visiting parks and zoos, and going to the beach. At sundown on Saturday, Shabbot ends and an hour later, shops, restaurants, and places of entertainment reopen. Everyone emerges to go out again.

My five year old son returned to the US nearly fluent in Hebrew… and in love with his teacher’s daughter, Rikiya. He will tell you that his favorite place in Israel is Masada. He loves riding the cable car to the top of the fortress and climbing the ruins. My favorite place is Caesaera.  I love spending an afternoon there or just going for lunch. It was only a 20 minute drive from my house so I was able to visit very often. I found myself wishing I could go there just this week. 😦

This assignment was an incredible opportunity for my family. It certainly wasn’t without its challenges, but I would absolutely do it again. Each of us brought back a little bit of Israel in our hearts, and left a little of ourselves behind as well.

  1. Chris Schardein
    May 28, 2012 at 20:31

    Reading this makes me remember a lot from our visit. Love your writings.

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