One winter’s night in Jerusalem, some thirty-odd years ago, I was waiting in Zion Square for the jitney that would drive me and several other passengers back to Tel Aviv. The way the system worked then, the first six people in line piled into the first jitney to arrive, the next six into the next one, and so on. That night I was the twelfth in line; I’d be the last one in the second jitney. Tired and cold, I had wrapped my arms around my chest and was turning in place to keep my circulation going when I happened to spot a woman with a head full of Farrah Fawcett hair, standing seven or eight people in back of me. The next time I turned, she seemed closer to me, and after the third turn closer still. Then suddenly she was behind me, and in another moment in front of me! As I had, at that point, been in Israel some three months, and this sort of line-cutting had happened many times before, I lost it. Tapping the woman on the shoulder, I said to her, “What you are doing is illegal, immoral, unethical and…” Without missing a beat, Farrah Fawcett turned to me and, both hands raised palms up, said, “Oll-right, oll-right, it means dot much to you, take it”—whereupon my jaw, always threatening to drop in Israel, did drop. The woman had been rude to me, but the tone of her voice, and the words that she spoke, implied that I was being rude to her. This country, I remember thinking, is a game I will never be equipped to play.
I had gone to Israel charged with the task of writing a book-length piece of personal journalism about the country as I found it, on the ground, in the ordinariness of its daily life. I never wrote that book. The country had not aroused my affection, and by then I had learned that to write critically, without sympathy, for the subject at hand was to commit literary suicide. I had met some of the most marvelous people I would ever know, looked at some of the most striking landscapes on the face of the planet, felt living history in the faces all about me. Yet however much I tried during the six months that I lived in Israel, through whichever of the various elements of identity at my disposal (Jewish, female, American), I was unable to connect. I returned to New York with a hundred pages of notes on people, places, events—all in the negative. Everything I had written said, “Yes, but…” As the child of Yiddish-speaking secular Jews, the Hebrew language meant no more to me than any other foreign tongue; as a woman, I balked at finding myself in a country more sexist than my own; as a product of individuating America, I found the tribalism of the culture dismaying.
I never knew anyone in Israel who was not an active member of a tight-knit family, and for whom consideration of the family was not permanently compelling. It was as though all Israelis had been raised to be husbands and wives, mothers and fathers, not simply women or men. The idea of living as a person who began and ended with oneself would, if proposed, invariably be met with a blank gaze, followed by: “But that is unnatural! What is natural is to be in a family.” A good many Israelis had married young and seemed to be going through life joined at the hip—a convention that I came to think at least partially responsible for the overwhelming impression I had of the Israelis I knew as men and women with a distinctly limited knowledge of themselves as sensual beings.
By the same token, most Israelis seemed to have as their closest intimates people they had met in high school or during the army stint that all Israelis (except for the ultra-Orthodox) put in at the age of 18. European or American immigrants often complained of not being able to penetrate the sealed circle of Israeli friendships formed in early adulthood. It was as though to individuate was to threaten the preoccupation with Jewish identity that permeated the shared sensibility. The public culture, of course, reflected these striking fundamentals. In the bank, at the post office, in line for a bus, perfect strangers behaved with one another like impassioned, unruly family members who felt free to take the coarse liberties one usually allows oneself only in family life.
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One morning I walked into my neighborhood bank in Tel Aviv to exchange American dollars for Israeli pounds (as the currency was then called). In the neutral voice with which I usually greet the world, I said to the teller, “May I please have…” The teller barked at me, “Oll-right, oll-right, iss not prob-lem,” as though I’d been harassing her for two hours. Suddenly, I realized that I had been spoken to in that tone of voice—in the post office, at the supermarket, on the bus—about a dozen times in the last two days, and each time the harshness had left me feeling stung.