In Israel, cars drive backwards down shoulders of freeways. Motorcyclists weave in between and around cars as carelessly as a five-year-old playing a video game. No one uses blinkers, ever. And that’s before you get into the major cities, where the streets all collide into one another with no apparent logic. Say what you will about the states, but at least there’s some semblance of order—roads are usually organized in some kind of grid, police officers will actually pull you over if you’re speeding fifty miles over the speed limit. A vehicle’s honk means “Hey, watch the road!” instead of “Hey, move it, I’m coming through!”
If anything makes me nervous in Israel, it’s being in a car. All those soldiers walking around with guns hanging carelessly over their shoulders – Eh. The security guards that check my purse every time I enter a mall or large conglomerate of stores – Whatever. Suicide bombers? Nah. Except for health-related fatalities, more people die from car accidents in Israel than anything else (and for those between the ages of fifteen and twenty-four, it’s the number-one cause of death). If you’ve ever found yourself crawling down Tel Aviv’s schwarma-shop-lined Allenby street or Jerusalem’s tourist-filled King George street, this will probably be no surprise to you.
Sure, Israel doesn’t own the rights to bad driving. I don’t particularly enjoy being in a car in Rome or Boston, either. In Warsaw, it once took me almost an hour to cross a street (turns out the only way to do it was to go underneath it). But I wonder what makes Israelis so particularly aggressive and inconsiderate in their cars. I can’t help but feel that this extremely hostile driving has some kind of effect on a person’s psyche. Or, that it’s the other way around—that Israelis are terrible drivers because of their aggressive, inconsiderate attitudes. Perhaps it’s even a self-perpetuating cycle.
The more I think about it, the more I think that maybe it’s all a matter of politeness. I’ve spent a lot of time in Israel, and I have to say, Israelis do not tiptoe around anything, and that includes what some might call inappropriate subjects. Israelis do not waste their time with rolled up hello-how-are-you-goods. They don’t ask “May I?” when they take the salt from your table. Pregnant bellies are public property, and no one is shy about getting in your personal space.
Having grown up in a very loud and direct Russian family, there’s something about this straightforward type of behavior that I’m very drawn to. Because, to me, politeness seems to be more a defense mechanism than anything else. My fiancé (an Israeli, coincidentally enough) and I are always lamenting that Americans, unless you’ve known them for years, are not very forthcoming; it is often hard for us to talk to them about things heavier than TV shows we have in common, work, or the latest regional gossip. Sometimes it feels like Americans are so afraid of being disagreed with or disliked that topics of conversation have no choice but to stay trivial. And it’s not even the topics of conversation, really, but more the level of conversation. It’s like filling up on appetizers and never getting to the main course–a lot of speaking gets done, but by the time you get to something real (if you ever do), everyone is picking up the checks.
It doesn’t help that most social outings in Chicago are also very rushed—everyone is just so busy here. People are always in a hurry to get somewhere else, do something else, meet someone else. Perhaps it’s so rushed because people are so afraid of something controversial or personal popping out of their mouths. Maybe they’re more patient drivers because that time in the car, instead of feeling like a hurdle to cross in order to get to their meeting place, is actually a time of personal introspection, a moment to consider the things actually on their minds before having to work at making one-dimensional conversations. In a recent New York Times article about the impact of technology on inter-human relations, Jonathan Safran Foer says: “The more distracted we become, and the more emphasis we place on speed at the expense of depth, the less likely and able we are to care.” Not that I need to add to the clamor of technology-driven existential crises, but he raises a very good point: is depth always the price we pay for speed?
Conversely, in Israel, people leave the rushing about to their driving. When they get together, meals can last for hours, discussions run the gamut of political, spiritual, and personal concerns, and people don’t seem to care all that much whether or not they are liked (which of course, only makes you like them more). Getting to your meeting place—well, that is an exercise in survival—but once you’ve arrived, the day melts away into night, the air gets nice and cool, and suddenly you look down at your watch and it’s time to put the kids to bed, or drive the thirty minutes back to the moshav or kibbutz from whence you came.
So I wonder: Can you have these types of friendships without a near-escape with death every time you enter a moving vehicle? Or, conversely, is it possible for Chicagoans to be more open socially, without becoming characters out of Grand Theft Auto? Maybe what Leonard Cohen says about people can be said for countries: “You will never untangle the circumstances that brought you to this moment.” Maybe it’s not possible to separate countrymen from their culture. Or, maybe, these things are just not related at all. Maybe Israel just needs more proactive police officers and Americans need to worry less about being liked and more about being themselves. Maybe Israelis are so used to being at war that their time is more precious to them—and therefore, they do not want to waste it on formalities. In any case, I think both places can take a lesson from the other: For the love of god, slow down!