Culture Shock: Israel
Jerusalem by Adam Reeder
Lisa Murgatroyd, Middle Eastern studies student at the University of Manchester, gives valuable tips and advice for any student planning on relocating to Israel for their year abroad...Leaving the comfy sphere of the ‘Western’ world, you should always be prepared for some measure of culture shock. Israel can best be described as a stepping stone into the Middle East. There are aspects which are completely modern, westernised, whereas others live up to your expectations of finding the mythical and mystical Middle East you so often hear and read about.
Many will be glad to hear that there is running water, reliable electricity and gas, and any other modern amenities you’d expect back at home. The water is drinkable, although it can obviously take some getting used to (and unless you’re planning to be here more than a month, drinking bottled water is no big pain). Pray for air conditioning wherever you may be; especially in Tel Aviv. The Summer lasts from around mid-May ‘till sometime in late October, and is generally very humid.
Israel is a Jewish state, with a significant Arab Christian and Muslim population, as well as Druze and Baha’i minorities (both located in the North of the country) and Bedouin (in the Negev desert, in the South). The cultural aspects of the country are generally found in the smaller towns and villages, or in the kibbutzim.
A kibbutz is a social commune, traditionally based on agriculture. Many would say the country was founded by these communities, where everyone shared and worked together. Someone who has grown up on a kibbutz is known as a kibbutznik. There are lots of programmes which allow you to volunteer on a kibbutz for free bed and boarding, and it’s a great way to interact with a quintessential part of Israeli culture. They’re generally located in idyllic spots of countryside, and have a great relaxed atmosphere, a nice break from the bustle of a bustling Israeli city.
The three major cities, each with their own unique personalities, are Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and Haifa. Cities and towns on the coast have a very Mediterranean feel to them, with a twist of history. The exception to, well, everything, is Tel Aviv. Tel Aviv and its suburbs are referred to as “the Bubble”, referring to this mentality that it is the only thing that exists in the world, and everything outside is inferior. It is a large vibrant city, full of life, parties and fun. Walking the streets, you could be in any major city in the UK, or America, for that matter. Jerusalem and Haifa both have a large Arab Christian and Muslim population, and boast a long and interesting history. Here you will find the more typically Middle Eastern aspects of life, from the architecture to the people themselves.
Israeli people are often referred to as Sabra, which means cactus in Hebrew – spiky on the outside, but soft in the middle! Get those elbows ready and learn to raise your voice – there are no queues here and it’s every man for himself. Yet, if you were to be overheard saying you had nowhere to spend your Shabbat (Friday sunset to sunset on Saturday, the Sabbath day) then the Jewish mother instinct would kick in, and it would be insisted upon that you come and eat with a stranger on the street. No one likes to travel in silence, so be prepared to be asked probing and personal questions about your life by someone sitting next to you on the bus, from your love life to your political views.
Security is a major concern to Israel, and so you will see metal scanners and security officers at the entrances to all public places (i.e. shopping centres, train and bus stations). Something that may come as a shock to some is the number of soldiers you will see on the street, or travelling on the bus or train with you; and nearly all will be armed with a rifle. Israel has a national service, from the age of 18 to 21. Unlike in the UK, soldiers are encouraged to use public transport (as it’s free to all service personnel).
Eating out is a great experience. Falafel and hummus are the seemingly national dishes, but Israel is also sushi and Italian mad. Pork is a general no-no, as is meat and milk served together, but you can still find somewhere to snack on a bacon cheeseburger, should the craving get a little too much for you.
One final word; as said before, Israel is a Jewish state, so the country abides by principles of the faith. That is to say, on Shabbat, public transport and most shops will close down (except in Tel Aviv, or an Arab neighbourhood). This also happens on the numerous Jewish holidays. Consider yourself warned!