with Lorelle and Brent VanFossen

It’s a Small Jewish World After All

Most of the jokes that come my way are tossed before even being inspected. Can’t stand email jokes! If there is a note in the title or the first line from the sender that says something like, “I saw this and thought immediately of you” or “This reminds me of when you and I…”. But if it says “I nearly laughed myself off the chair and thought you would think this is funny”, odds are 1) I’ve seen it before (at least 30 times), and 2) I won’t find it funny. I love jokes. I love silliness, but I don’t time for a clogged up email inbox filled with jokes.

I know I sound callous but when you live our lifestyle on the road – and you live in Israel – your day-to-day, minute-by-minute life is so filled with things worth of laughter because they are so totally outrageous and ridiculous, email jokes lose their flavor.

Now that my “email joke” soap box is over, I do have one to share with you that so epitomizes our life here in Israel, I just had to share it.

After months of negotiation with the authorities, a Talmudist from Odessa was granted permission to visit Moscow. He boarded the train and found an empty seat.

At the next stop a young man got on and sat next to him. The scholar looked at the young man and thought: This fellow doesn’t look like a peasant, and if he isn’t a peasant he probably comes from this district. If he comes from this district, then he must be Jewish because this is, after all, a Jewish district.

On the other hand, if he is a Jew, where could he be going? I’m the only Jew in our district who has permission to travel to Moscow.

Ahh? But just outside Moscow there is a little village called Samvet, and Jews don’t need special permission to go there. But why would he be going to Samvet?

He’s probably going to visit one of the Jewish families there, but how many Jewish families are there in Samvet? Only two – the Bernsteins and the Steinbergs. The Bernsteins are a terrible family, and a nice looking fellow like him must be visiting the Steinbergs.

But why is he going? The Steinbergs have only daughters, so maybe he’s their son-in-law. But if he is, then which daughter did he marry? They say that Sarah married a nice lawyer from Budapest, and Esther married a businessman from Zhitomer, so it must be Sarah’s husband. Which means that his name is Alexander Cohen, if I’m not mistaken. But if he comes from Budapest, with all the anti-Semitism they have there, he must have changed his name.

What’s the Hungarian equivalent of Cohen? Kovacs. But if they allowed him to change his name, he must have some special status. What could it be? A doctorate from the University.

At this point the scholar turns to the young man and says, “How do you do, Dr. Kovacs?”

“Very well, thank you, sir.” answered the startled passenger. But how is it that you know my name?”

“Oh,” replied the Talmudist, “it was obvious.”

Brent was photographing in the wilderness among the Eilat Mountains, miles away from civilization. He was after some honey buzzards. A van arrived with a small group of birders and soon one came over to check out his big camera lens, a magnet for the curious. Within seconds he heard their life stories and that they were part of a birding group based in Tel Aviv and were also there for the honey buzzards – and, oh, by the way, did he happen to know Mottie and Marlene

Brent replied that they are good friends of ours and that we had just had dinner with them only a few weeks before. The woman leader was overjoyed to know that we shared something in common and then Brent said he could see the wheels churing in her head.

“Are you the Brent VanFossen, famous nature photographer and teacher, that Mottie and Marlene are always talking about?”

Brent admitted it was probably so. She went totally nuts and invited the whole group over to meet him and before long, he was a part of the group and he ended up spending the day with them.

I wish I could tell you this is a unique event in our life here. Everyone knows everyone in this microscopic community of less than 6 million citizens. Over and over we meet people who know people who know us in a vast never-ending circle of connections. And we don’t know that many people here. Though, I have to admit that we know only two other “Americans” and that number has remained steady for much of our 5 years here. We don’t hang out with x-pats or non-citizens. We hang out with people who were either born here or lived here for a minimum of 20 years.

I guess we’re in the “in crowd” because we don’t stay exclusively with non-residents. There are pluses and minuses to that, but I want to get back to the “everyone knows everyone” thing.

Since everyone under the age of 40-something who comes to Israel to live has to go through the army, the army creates a “family” of connections. So this is one way everyone knows everyone.

Another way is through the lack of much hierarchy in the society. Sure, there are the uppers and the lowers, but in general, most everyone here has been, until recently, on the same footing. All immigrants or struggling residents smashing heads together to create a viable state against odds that are completely and totally overwhelming. I can’t see any town in the US coming together to create and build from NOTHING like I have here. The force of human nature to transform, whether it likes it or not, is amazing. This determination brought groups of people together and overcame much of the class system really. Sure it lingeres, but for the most part everyone feels like they are equal to everyone else. This creates relationships across financial and cultural divides not found in many of the world’s societies. It is fairly common to invite your local grocer guys over for dinner or parties. People are just people.

Most importantly, everyone knows everyone in Israel because it is part of the culture, as shown in the joke, to know everything you can about a person within the first 30 seconds of meeting. We make jokes, but we’ve suffered the slick interrogations that happen when you meet new people here. “So where are you from?” “So what do you do?” “Do you know Moshe?” “Ah, how do you know Moshe?” “Where do you live?” And the list goes on. If you aren’t careful, you’ll be handing out your passport number to these inquisitive folks.

I tried to explain this to an American friend who told me, “Of course they are suspicious. Everyone is a potential terrorist.” Sorry. It goes beyond that. You are not accepted until they have found a place for you in their world. It is critical for them to find commonality, common ground to stand on next to you. Being dismissed for lack of commonality is also normal here and if you aren’t used to it, it can tear at your spirit something vicious. I’ve started conversations with people who decided I wasn’t worth the energy and they just turned and walked off. After a while, you realize it has nothing to do with you. It is a sign that you have nothing to do with them. Lack of common ground, no interest. NEXT!

Along with this having-to-know-everything-about-you comes friendships and connections that help you through the tough times it takes to live here. I can call one friend and ask about where I might find something and within a day I will get a call from another friend who said that Ruth told Inez and Inez told Ester, who told another Ruth who called me that I needed information about XYZ and here is the information. It’s a strange thing but it happens.

When I first came here, out of the blue my neighbor said, “If you need a good dentist, the best is right down the street, Dr. Kaplan.” I didn’t but I remembered his name because it is the same as a major street in Tel Aviv near our house. Months later, another friend mentioned, out of nowhere, that if I needed a good dentist, there was one right by my apartment, name of Kaplan. Hmmm, sounded familiar. When I finally needed a dentist, I asked around and two completely related people recommended Dr. Kaplan. Convinced, Brent and I went there and were stunned to find that he is actually from Florida and a great and really friendly dentist. Lucky us. But the point is that this connection of everyone knowing everyone comes up in the strangest ways. We had two dentists’ offices in the bottom floor of our building but no one recommended them!

This connection between people is something I wish the US would embrace. Too many people don’t know who lives across the hall from them. It’s so sad. My neighbor on the bottom floor told me to ignore her interrogation right after we arrived. “I grew up in a kibbutz. If we didn’t know everything about everyone, they weren’t worth knowing. I treat this apartment building like my kibbutz. I just have to know everything that is going on all the time. I’m miserable unless I do.”

So I challenge you. Go interrograte your neighbor. Do it for the good of the community. And maybe make a friend. At the least, you’ll know someone who someday someone else might ask you if you know!

Tel Aviv, Israel

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