When was the last time you LAUGHED about Israel, instead of feeling sad, anguished, disheartened, worried, disenchanted, uncomfortable, ashamed or angry?
The fact is, a steady diet of conflict-driven news warps perceptions of the real Israel. How do I know? When I read the foreign media – including the Jewish papers, I don’t recognize the contours of the country I’ve called home for almost 50 years. OK, in part this is because I’m an odd news junkie, exposed to the wildest and wackiest news stories that ‘hide’ in the Hebrew press. Israel is an outrageously amusing and lively place to live, yet outsiders haven’t a clue about the humorous side of what goes for normalcy in Israel.
Israel has all the quirky elements with which humanity as a whole is blessed …and then some, the fodder for columns such as News of the Weird and best selling books like The Darwin Reports. Reuters’ Oddly Enough reported how a British woman named Brenda Eccles had her deceased husband’s ashes made into an egg timer so he could ‘help’ in the kitchen? An equally eccentric Israeli petitioned Israel’s supreme court claiming the right to forego burial…to be eaten by wild animals when he died, to repay nature for a lifetime at the top of the food chain but few outside Israel are familiar with this tidbit. Israeli officials are no less silly than those abroad: City elders in Herzliya painted the asphalt of the main drag purple for a refreshing change – only to have the color fade in the Israeli sun; city hall in Binyamina resolved to erect a miniature Eiffel Tower to help French immigrants acculturate, but not before they installed singing traffic lights to calm impatient Israeli motorists.
Even in the worst of times, Israelis continue to do nutty and nervy life-embracing things.
- An Israeli soldier whose ultimate Jewish mother snuck into boot camp to accompany her son on guard duty because he was afraid of the dark
- an enterprising security guard who held up the very bank he was hired to protect against suicide bombers
- an avid theater-lover caught paying for tickets to The Miser with a forged credit card
- a visitor at the Tiberias lockup who brought a buddy four piping hot falafels, filled not only with the requisite condiments, but also 45 gram of heroin stashed inside the balls – leaving the bearer of gifts in a genuine pickle
- an Israeli minister who seized and hypnotized a chicken to grab a headline, leaving the zonked bird on its back like a giant cockroach
- a scheme in Safed to mitigate the drain on water reserves by channeling used mikvah (ritual bath) water to irrigate municipal gardens
- a decision by the IDF Quartermaster Corps to cut out left hip pockets on fatigues as an economy move
- a strange get (Jewish divorce papers) that required the divorcee to pay his former spouse one pregnant goat a year for the next 35 years – raising serious questions as to ‘who got whose goat.’
Most of the above items and many more – some that show human foibles, others that are simply incredible, a lot that could happen only in Israel – took place at the height of the 2000-2005 Terror War (‘Second Intifada’) as Israelis coped with wave-after-wave of suicide bombers. Such behavior embracing life to the fullest under all circumstances reflects the Israeli practice of shigrat chirum – literally ‘routine in an emergency situation’ – an Israeli concept par excellance and one of the secrets behind Israelis’ resilience. The impact of an exclusively conflict-driven dialogue is epitomized by the response of a well-meaning Jewish woman from Florida who in October 2002 (at the height of the Terror War), explained she had gone on three solidarity missions to Israel that year saying it was like “visiting a sick relative in the hospital!” Clearly she and countless others need a reality check about Israel beyond conflict.
What is the real Israel like? Crazy antics run the length and breadth of Zionist history, including periods of heightened conflict. Take the July-August 2014 ‘Protective Edge’ campaign (whose name sounds like a launch for a new improved Gillette razor): The Ramat Gan Municipality ran away with one of the 6th annual Chelm Awards for 2014 (sponsored by the news outlet Chelm-on-the-Med Online which I launched in 2009 to add some balance to news about Israel, and change preconceptions – one chuckle at a time) … for ticketing cars for illegal parking after motorists pulled over to the side of the road to hug the pavement following warning sirens signaled a Grad rocket salvo was headed their way.
Beyond comic relief, in the subtext countless odd news stories speak volumes about how Israeli society ticks. Is Israeli society really coming apart at the seams? Not really. Take the report on a pair of Ashkelon cops sent to fill in a report on an elderly Russian immigrant who’d died in her sleep; learning there was no next-of-kin to say a mourner’s Kaddish, the cops not only organized a minyan of fellow officers for the funeral; everyone at the station chipped-in to buy the deceased a nicer tombstone than the one provided by National Insurance. No one-time-incident, in another case 70 mourners showed up at the funeral of a complete stranger in similar circumstances, after an early-morning radio program put out a 7am plea to the public to attend.
In fact, the latest global craze – the flash mob – has taken a unique form in Israel, with hundreds and at times thousands of people dropping everything to show up to save an event – for example, the bat mitzvah of a kid being ostracized by her classmates or a wedding where most guests failed to show up, having assumed the event had been cancelled due to a recent death in the family, or scores of total strangers who showed up to sit shiva with a lonely old man who lost his wife, providing food and moral support – all gesture of solidarity, touched off by a post in the social media. Not all such gestures of compassion reported in the press are mass participant events: Take the repossessor appointed by the courts, who knocked on the door of a needy family just before Purim, to find the family so strapped they couldn’t even afford the makings for mishlochei manot (small gift baskets of goodies that children and families traditionally exchange at Purim); rather than walking off with the half-empty frig, the collector took one look around, scribbled on the sequestration order ‘nothing to repossess,’ opened his wallet and handed the head of the household a 100 NIS bill and walked straight out the door.
Even the 1948 War of Independence – the bloodiest war in Israel’s history – was peppered by piquant Chelm-like-but-true episodes and bizarre situations that encapsulated the flavor of life in the Jewish state. In February 1948, in the twilight hours of the British Mandate, the Etzel attempted to rob a Barclays Bank in Tel Aviv parading as British soldiers. The members of the radical Jewish militia closed off a section of Allenby Street with jeeps and barbed wire. Cursing like true troopers, in ‘Hinglish’ – fooling nobody, 15 of the gang walked into the bank demanding the keys to the vault…but due to bad timing, no combination of keys opened the safe. It was 8 AM – well before banker’s hours.
Daniella Ashkenazy is a semi-retired bilingual journalist. She founded Chelm-on-the-Med Online– which features Chelm-like-but-true news stories to diversify news from Israel and lighten up and enrich Israel education …but only after spending 35 years writing major articles, columns and/or commentary for many of Israel’s leading print media and spending .3.5 years writing two books and countless white papers for Myths and Facts about the roots of the Israeli-Arab conflict (but painfully aware that such serious content attracts a limited audience).