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Life in Israel - Part 1 - A country of immigrants

February 25, 2015


So far, the plots of my books have been set in Israel, involving Israeli culture, and so I was worried at first about how to make contact with the global book market and publish the book on How would I ever explain to an Arizona housewife that Israeli men do Reserve Duty once a year (or, at least, are supposed to)? Would my new readers understand the difference between a ‘tight’ religious Jew and a ‘light’ religious Jew? You’d surely have to be Israeli to understand all the anecdotes in my books…

Eventually, to my great joy, I was convinced that I should translate the books and upload them to I found - to my amazement - that it was precisely the fact that the books are ‘Israeli’ that makes them interesting and maybe even somewhat ‘exotic’ in the eyes of the non-Israeli reader.

In the next few posts, I’ll give you a short background about the state of Israel - not what you see on the news, but the daily reality that’s unique to Israel. I have no intention, in these posts, of converting you to fervent Zionism or soliciting you to come for a visit (although I’d certainly strongly recommend it…). I'm not going to address the Israeli-Palestinian conflict - I'll leave politics to politicians.
In the next few posts, I’ll describe our unique culture, which is the basis of my writing.

A country of immigrants

Israel is a country of immigrants. Until the nineteenth century, the entire area was mainly uninhabited (not even by Arabs, by the way). During the nineteenth century, Arabs from neighboring countries came to the region, mainly as migrant workers under Turkish rule; Zionist Jews came, too, mainly from Russia. In the twentieth century, there was massive immigration, mainly Jews from Eastern Europe. The peak of the immigration of Jews was, of course, after the Holocaust and the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948. After the establishment of Israel, many Jews from Arab nations also joined the new Jewish entity.


I, for example, am of Polish-Hungarian origin. My father's parents were born in Poland. My mother's parents were born in Poland (my grandfather) and Hungary (my grandmother).

My husband is Czech-Dutch-German. His father was born in the Czech Republic and his mother's parents were born in the Netherlands (his grandmother) and Germany (his grandfather).


Jews whose parents came from various European countries (except Greece and Spain) are called ‘Ashkenazi’ Jews and the Jews who came from Arab countries (and Greece) are called ‘Eastern’ Jews (Mizrachi, in Hebrew) or ‘Spanish’ (Spharadi, in Hebrew), although very few of them came from Spain. By the way, a very interesting fact is that Jews with the surname ‘Ashkenazi’ are sometimes Eastern Jews.

The United States, for example, is also a country of immigrants, and there’s a distinction between Italians, Irish, Polish, African-American and so on... the difference is that mass migration to the US occurred hundreds of years ago; while Israel is less than seventy years old (the state of Israel will be seventy in April 2018). The process of making various immigrants, with different history, different foods, different languages and different customs into a homogeneous population is not a simple - nor fast - process. Moreover, the immigration of Jews from various countries is still happening. Twenty years ago, the fall of the Soviet regime finally gave Soviet Jews the opportunity to move to Israel after years of being prevented from doing so, resulting in mass migration. In recent years, there’s been a large increase in Jews from Ethiopia… and now there’s the expectation of an influx of French Jews, due to the recent riots and harassment of Jews in France.


Although Jews come to Israel from all over the world, the main groups are the Ashkenazi and the Mizrachi. In my Hebrew books, I use this state of affairs, which is clear and understandable to every Israeli, but hard to explain in a book intended to a non-Israeli reader. (The English translation of these sections is usually modified because it’s very difficult to explain to those who are not familiar with the background.)

There is, unfortunately, tension between Ashkenazi and Mizrachi Jews - the western mentality against the eastern; roughly generalized, the Ashkenazi would be an intellectual with a small family and a Mizrachi would have no formal education, but have a large, warm family. (This observation is, of course, mainly relevant to the older generation, who came to Israel in the 1950s.)


Mizrachi Jews can harbor bitterness against the Ashkenazi establishment (because mainly Ashkenazi Jews established the State of Israel; Jews from Arab countries were accepted only after the establishment of Israel in 1948, while European Jews had been coming to Israel since the nineteenth century). Such bitterness was once justified: discrimination was institutionalized on a sectarian basis. Just to illustrate: in the past, major radio stations rarely broadcast the music of Mizrachi musicians (who sang and played Oriental music). The revolution in that field came in the early 1980s. Today, the most successful singers in Israel are Mizrachi. I, personally, really love a singer named Sarit Hadad, who was a judge on the Israeli version of The Voice.


Here is a wonderful cover Sarit Hadad did for "Baby can I hold you":

And one of here major mega-hit (Hebrew): "In the heat of Tel Aviv":

As for today - there’s still tension, but it’s decreasing, if only because third and fourth generation Israelis are marrying between themselves. My nephews, for example (the children of my husband's sister) are grandchildren of a woman of Yemeni origin.


Although the main division is between Mizrachi and Ashkenazi, there are many prejudices, poking fun at each and every country our Jewish population came from. Here are some of the prejudices and some fun jokes (so NOT politically correct of me!):


Polish mothers (that’s me!!!) are considered very uptight, very protective and cold in bed. But, you know… these are not jokes – it's all true:

A young man brings home three girls and asks his Polish mother who she thinks should be his future wife.
The Polish mother keeps her eyes open, watching and studying the girls. After half a minute, she goes over to her son and says confidently, "The one in the middle!"
Amazed son: "How do you know?"
"Very simple," says the Polish mom. "From the first moment, I couldn’t stand her"


Jews from Morocco are considered very nervous:

A Moroccan woman’s fighting with her husband.
The husband’s scared and runs and hides under the bed.
The wife shouts at him: "Get out of there immediately!"
Husband: "NO!"
Wife: "I told you, get out from under the bed immediately!"
The husband takes a deep breath: "I'm the man of the house, and if I say no then no!"


German Jews are called ‘Yeke’ and are considered (like everyone from Germany) to be very strict and humorless:

Q. Why is the door in a Yeke synagogue very wide?

A. Because all the Yekes come in at exactly 06:42 A.M.


A Yeke laughs at a joke twice: the first time he hears the joke – he laughs out of politeness. The second time is a month later, when he finally gets it.


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