How to Spot a Sabra

After what feels like a year (in reality it’s been 2 and half months), I can confidently say that I love Israelis. I love the adorable brown-haired kids in my classes who tell me how beautiful I am. I love the old women on the bus who, without asking, continue to consider me their personal cane/body guard. I love the taxi drivers who pleasantly rip me off while blasting Mizrahi music. I love the men at the market who try to rip me off, but fold at the sight of my confused smile and American accent. I love the twenty-something girls with their independence and strong sense of self and I am IN love with the twenty-something guys…can you blame me?

But there’s more to it than just calling someone an Israeli. Like anywhere in the world, cultural sub-groups emerge based on religion, socio-economics, race…pretty much anything that can make someone “different”. I won’t go into all of them, but more than likely Israeli Jews can be divided into one of two groups, Safardim and Ashkanazim. If your family hailed from Europe, Russia etc., and gets sunburned after 10 minutes in the sun, consider yourself an Ashkansazi Jew. Safardim come from the descendants of Spain, Portugal, North Africa and the Middle East where tan skin, dark hair and Mizrahi music rule all.

So who are these sabras I speak of? By definition, a sabra is an Israeli Jew born in Israel. Coined in the ‘30’s when part of Israel’s mission was to create a national identity for the Jewish homeland, this term symbolized more than a group of people…it was an intentionally acquired Israeli way of life. The country found itself with a such large amount of diverse immigrants, both Safardic or Ashkanzi, that they needed to find its own “flavor,” and my did they create something spicy. The meaning of sabra, prickly pear (a kind of cactus), says it all. It’s the perfect metaphor for the results of this cultural creation – these people have developed a tough, harsh exterior, but on the inside they are the sweetest of sweet.

I talked to my friend about one of her most memorable experiences with a sabra. She said, “It’s a simple one really. I was on the bus, and this soldier had a nosebleed. I went to give him a tissue, and instead of turning away, staying straight-faced and harsh like before, he opened up into this charming, nice person. I think they are all like that.”

I couldn’t agree more. Day-to-day life is challenging here. People work to survive, making little for the “extras”. Although there are times when Israel experiences “peace”, people always feel the heat, no matter where they are in the country. My couch surfing friend said it best, “I’m tired of living in a frying pan.”

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Thats right, I said couch surfing. This past weekend I took the ultimate travel-on-a-budget challenge and slept on a complete strangers couch in Tel Aviv. More to come later on this, but if you want to learn more click here.

I told him about my latest blog post idea (the one you are reading now) and his comical yet poignant response was, “that’s easy, just put a coin in the middle of the room and see who reaches for it first.” Yes, even Israelis know the stereotypes of Jews: we are cheap and obsessed with money.

Where did this stereotype come from? It could have something to do with Israeli’s special knack for bartering. I’ve learned that in Israel every price tag is up for debate. This fact is best proven at the local shuk where at any given moment a weathered looking sabra and his younger counterpoint begin arguing about the prices of onions that day. Classic bartering moves – the “walk away” or the “::aggressive hand motion::” – fill every shop, qiosk and bodega in Israel. It’s so common to the point where I can’t understand how 1) anything gets sold and 2) anyone buys anything. This hilarious clip featuring Adam Sandler and Tom Hanks explains it all.

Besides hating to pay for things full price, Israelis hate to stand in line. Instead, they have developed a system I like to call, “The Bulge”. You’ll see this intriguing phenomenon around bus stops, banks and various crowded falafel stands. It’s happens at the moment when all sense of personal space and maturity go out the window and where children and old ladies hold on for dear life as everyone piles into this massive, for lack of better word, bulge. Pushed up against the other in places you never thought a stranger would go, you begin to ask yourself how you got into this situation. My experience on the 370 bus in Tel Aviv was surprisingly humbling and made me feel better about myself and Americans – at least we take turns being rude to each other.

In some ways I think this behavior stems from Israel’s history. Israelis, especially sabras, were born on “not enough”. In the first and second wave of Israeli immigrants, the land could not sustain the amount of people that were rapidly entering the country. You had to fight for the little you had and hold onto it. Not to mention many of these immigrants were Holocaust survivors or their orphaned children.

Why do I love these people despite their slightly aggressive, irreverent manner?

The best way I can explain is by comparing it to the love you have for a sibling. You can complain about them all you want, talk about the frustrating way they pick a fight out of nowhere or the way they pin you for something in front of your parents, but if anyone outside your immediate family said the same thing you would instantly turn on them, defending your bro or sis like an angry lioness.

I see the good here. There’s a lot of it. From the random offers to come dine with a family on Shabbat, or the way a cashier smiles sympathetically as she realizes I have no idea what she’s saying. It’s the way strangers leave their dogs with me on the beach, only to return and have a real, honest chat. It’s the way they can be shocked and almost angered at the fact that I am considering moving to Israel, but at the moment I decide to stay they would be beyond proud and excited.

So how do I spot a sabra? Many times it’s their aggressive hand motions and loud exclamations as I give them the wrong amount of change or walk the wrong way. But most of the time, it’s the people that smile and lovingly ask, “where are you eating Shabbat dinner this week?”