Aliyah – the good, the bad and the meshuga. Culture shock…

Culture shock!
Culture shock!

“The biggest challenge for you is going to be the culture shock”, a wise Israeli diplomat warned me, when he heard we were making Aliyah. Our paths had crossed in the working world in South Africa, and I knew him to be professional, charismatic and trustworthy. I remember thinking that learning a new culture at this stage in our lives would be part of the adventure, when starting out in a new country. Surely it can’t be too different? After all, if you love shawarma, are happy to have salad with your eggs at breakfast time and are open to having friends over for coffee after 10 at night, aren’t you half way there?

The first taste of what he may have meant hit me with a thud when I waited in a queue in a nearby supermarket – and by waited, I mean South African style, standing patiently behind the lady in front of me. The woman in front launched into a loud argument with the cashier, and then directed her frustration at two managers standing on a raised platform at the back of the shop. Soon, all four were shouting as the disgruntled shopper pointed to an advert in a newspaper clipping. One didn’t need a thorough knowledge of the language, to work out what the dispute was over. All this time, I wondered if any of the four women involved in this increasingly heated argument were aware of the growing queue in the supermarket. It seemed they weren’t, or if they were, it wasn’t a priority at the time.

The real surprise wasn’t the fact that the ‘dispute’ continued in public for several minutes. It wasn’t the fact that those involved didn’t seem to hear the heckling from some agitated customers. It was the way the shopper responded when the situation was finally resolved. She packed her groceries into her bag, smiled at the cashier and cheerfully said “Yom Tov”! Without turning to look at the queue, she waved at the two managers, smiled and left. The three women who’d been arguing with her all said goodbye and carried on working, as if nothing had happened. As a life coach, I had to marvel at the way they immediately resumed their duties. No anger, no rolling of the eyes, no chirping…just back to business as usual.

Is this seat taken?

Recently, I was sitting in an empty coffee shop, working on a laptop. I’d chosen what looked like a quiet table in the corner, with a sea view. An elderly woman came up and asked in Hebrew if she could join me. The ever-polite South African response was ‘of course’ – but I was confused because there were several empty tables in the room. Soon, her friends joined and there I was sitting with three chatty, effervescent women deciding on what they should order for lunch. Another scenario I’d never experienced in South Africa. It felt rude for me to continue typing, so I closed the laptop, smiled and drank my coffee.

Who will catch me when I fall?

Many locals here have advised that the generally reserved and well-mannered Anglo’s quickly learn to speak up, hoot back in traffic and stand their ground in a busy queue. But we’ve also been repeatedly reminded that that the so-called Israeli ‘Sabra’, is tough on the outside and soft on the inside. Walking down Ben Yehuda street in Jerusalem one night, we heard a thud behind us. An elderly man had tripped while walking with his wife. Seemingly out of no-where, a well-built man in his forties raced to help the gentleman to his feet. He asked the frail man several questions to make sure he man wasn’t hurt, before watching the couple walk away.

It’s that kind of ‘culture shock’ that will help balance out the many different, new ‘scenarios’ that lie ahead.


New word for the weekmakolet – mini supermarket.

Favourite phrase of the weekYom Tov – not reserved just for festivals, but just an everyday greeting. “Have a good day”, said at the end of a chat, or apparently after resolving an argument.

Smile of the week – sitting inside a government office in Kvar Saba, waiting for my number to be called so I can collect a travel document. Out of the blue, the couple next to me ask if I’m South African? (They recognized the accent.) They had just landed from Cape Town this week to start their Aliyah. You can take a South African out of Africa, but they will always find each other…

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