Wednesday, April 16, 2008


Being Nice is a Luxury

Originally published in the New York Mills Herald on 3/27/08 and credited to my alternate identity, Elisa Korentayer.

I just returned from ten days in Israel where I went to visit my family and old friends. There is much to say about Israel. It is a fascinating country with complicated politics, a rich culture, and mind-boggling amounts of history. However, I would like to talk about something else. I would like to talk about how the behavior of Israelis is perhaps the polar opposite of the behavior of Minnesotans, and how observing this taught me that being nice is a luxury. Let me elaborate.

When I arrived in Israel, my mother wailed over my decision to rent a car. “Drivers are crazy here,” she cried. “You don’t know what kind of danger you’ll be in!” I scoffed at her overprotectiveness, and rented a car anyway. “They can’t be worse than drivers in Mexico. Anyway, I drove for years in New York City, there’s no better schooling than that.”

How wrong I was.

Each driver in Israel has one goal—to control the road. To this end, drivers tend to drive on the lane-divider lines, so that no car can pass them on either the right or the left. Drivers do not signal, not because they forget, but because they do not want to let others on the road know their plans and have the chance to foil them. If a driver were to signal a lane change, the car in the next lane would move up and close off the gap so he couldn’t pass. This creates an environment where drivers make life-threatening moves. Without signaling, drivers will pull in front of you into openings that are half their car’s size, forcing you to slam on your brakes. Drivers will come at you at high speeds and hover only inches away from the vehicles in front of them. Drivers will choose to stop and wait anywhere that it pleases them on narrow roads in busy cities. Should they block your passage, well, that’s really your problem, isn’t it? I thought that New York drivers were bad, but there is one key difference between New York and Israeli drivers: New York drivers pretend not to be scared of dying; Israeli drivers are truly fearless.

This aggressive, self-centered, goal-oriented behavior is reflected off the road too. If you want to buy an ice cream, say, and there are twenty others who do too, then there is no point in trying to wait on a queue. There is no queue. There is a mob of ice-cream-craving combatants. Whoever screams the loudest and pushes herself ahead of you will be served first, no matter that you’ve been waiting there patiently for the last half hour and this bozo just walked in. As my Minnesota-native fiancé learned with me, nice just doesn’t pay. If a person behaves as a Minnesotan would—waiting politely, quietly, and patiently until the person wielding the ice cream scoop looks his way—then he might wait till closing time and still not get an ice cream cone. I waited for a good twenty minutes as people who came in behind me shoved ahead of me and got their ice cream cones first. I only got my ice cream because my Israeli aunt intervened.

Why are Israelis so rude? I believe it’s because the people of Israel don’t have the time to wait their turn or consider others. When you live your life knowing that any minute a suicide bomber could end your journey on this planet or that an enemy state could decide that it is time to wage war and destroy your home and the life you’ve known, then why wait for your ice cream cone? You have only this moment to enjoy it. Israelis live in a place where everyone is out to get them—neighbor nations, the guy across the street, the government. There is no peace in such a world. Conflict is a part of life, and one has to keep one’s battle skills honed. Israeli culture helps keep its people ready for conflict. Israelis are trained to be tough from their infancy. Besides the daily hassle of getting through a day in Israel, all Israelis are required to serve in the army. Every Israeli citizen, save the extremely religious or the citizens of Israel who are Arab, has been through basic training and a two- to three- year stint in the Israeli Defense Forces, one of the most effective armies in the world.

Israelis are not embarrassed about their tough, take-no-prisoners approach to life. In fact, my Israeli aunt scoffs at the sensitivity of Americans, what she describes as our “gentleness.” She gets frustrated at how she has to pad her words and pussyfoot around her point when speaking to her American siblings, nieces, and nephews. “You’re skin is too thin,” she tells me. “You need everything to be gentle, supportive, and kind. I can’t be direct with any of you. You need to toughen up.” Needless to say, my aunt drives on the lane-divider lines and orders her ice cream by pushing to the front of the line and yelling her order. She is a master at navigating the ins and outs of Israeli culture, and there is a kind of grace in her roughness. When sparring with ticket takers or other drivers, she generally has a smile on her face and a flirtatious sneer in her tone. She gets things done.

I came back from our visit to Israel with a real appreciation for how good we have it in the United States and particularly in our little corner of Minnesota. Here, we are not afraid that at any moment an F15 will bomb our home. We do not worry about missiles coming across the Canadian border and hitting our schools. We are not required by the government to serve in the army or build weapon-deterring safe rooms in our homes. We have the luxury of being nice to one another. This is a luxury that I vow to appreciate more.

I came home from Israel looking forward to my return to this small town where people are Minnesota-nice. I dreamed of driving on Highway 10, where cars leave wide swathes of space between each other and generally respect a person’s right to turn. I imagined getting my coffee at the Creamery, where people wait their turn to order, gently ask their neighbors how they are, and Cheryl greets you with a smile instead of a growl. Most of all, I looked forward to being in a place where I do not have to live in fear.

Comments: Post a Comment

<< Home

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?