I’ve been in Israel for a little over a month now and it’s been a little bit of a culture shock for me. Learning new things about how other people live is a big part of why I like to travel though. So with out further ado, here are 10 things you (probably) didn’t know about Israel.
1: Driving in Israel
Driving in Israel reminds me of the way I drove when I was in my late 20’s and early 30’s. When I totaled a Camaro, a Corvette and blew up the motor in a BMW…They are extremely aggressive drivers. They have no problem cutting people off, or tailgating at 130kph (~80mph) and flashing their high beams because you’re not going fast enough.
There are cops everywhere, and they usually drive around with their lights on. I see very little traffic enforcement though. Considering that Israel is pretty much under constant threat of attack, I guess the police have better things to worry about than some aggressive driving.
2: The Sabbath (or Shabbat)
The sabbath was probably the biggest culture shock for me. Being an agnostic American, what I knew of the Jewish religion wouldn’t even fill up a shot glass. The Jewish sabbath is on Saturday (this I knew). What I didn’t know is that the sabbath actually goes from roughly sundown Friday evening to sundown Saturday evening. Because of the sabbath, the work week in Israel is shifted one day. It starts on Sunday and goes to Thursday.
According to Jewish law, observant Jews are prevented from working on the sabbath. Somehow this prohibition against working translates into not using electricity (including turning on lights or pushing elevator buttons) or driving. I did a little research and I found an interesting article that helps to explain why the sabbath’s restrictions are what they are. Here’s a link to the article. Check it out, it is pretty informative.
3: Kosher food
Remember that shot glass I mentioned? Yeah, it contained almost no knowledge about kosher food. The majority of restaurants here are kosher. McDonalds is kosher. The upside being that there is 100% beef in their hamburgers. From what I’m told (I haven’t eaten at McDonalds in over a decade) the burgers are a lot better because of it. The down side is you aren’t going to get your 1/4 pounder with cheese (or is it a royale with cheese?). Pizza Hut is also kosher, so you can have vegetarian pizza with cheese, or meat pizza with no cheese. Dominoes is not kosher, but I wouldn’t recommend it.
There are about 8.5 million people living in Israel, and about 15% (or 1.2 million) of them are Russians. Being a red blooded, commie hating American, I never thought I’d say this but; thank goodness for the Russians! There are quite a few Russian owned restaurants in Israel, and none of them (that I’ve been too) are kosher and the food has always been excellent.
5: Israeli flag
Including Israel, I’ve been to 22 countries. In most of the countries I’ve been to, the only place you’ll see their national flag is on government building, military and police uniforms and other official institutions. Not so in Israel. One can see their flag waving in the wind pretty much everywhere. Walking down the street, the cubical’s at work, cell phone cases, t-shirts… the list goes on. In my experience, the United States is the only country that even comes close. Us American’s love to see our Stars and Stripes flapping in the wind.
6: Free Shots
Speaking of shot glasses! For three years I moonlighted as a bouncer at bars and clubs in the Portland Oregon area. During my tenure as a bouncer, the bartenders never once gave me a free shot, even though we were friends.
Those Russian restaurants I mentioned in #4? The bartenders are very generous with their alcohol. It’s not just the Russian restaurants either, the hotel bar too, is very generous. I’ve probably downed half a dozen free shots in the last month. And I’ve had to refuse a couple more beyond that (I was driving).
Being surrounded on three sides by Muslim countries, Israel is under almost constant threat of attack. As a result, the Israeli Defense Force has developed what they call the Iron Dome, a land based anti-air missile system that has been successfully protecting populated areas of Israel since 2011.
Another thing the Israeli’s have in common with America is that they love their guns. The door man at the hotel carries a 1911 on his belt. The security at work carries a 9mm SMG as well as a pistol. And on multiple occasions I’ve seen people open carrying.
8: Key codes in cars
My rental car (and the rentals my co-workers have) has an option that is unique to Israel. There is a 4 number keypad under the steering wheel. In order to start the car, one has to input the PIN before the key is turned.
Apparently a favorite pastime of the Palestinians is to steal Israeli cars, drive them to the Gaza Strip and hold them for ransom. They will contact the car’s owner and demand money for the location of their car. The keypad is an extra security measure to stop the car from being stolen.
9: Protected Areas
Part of the building code in Israel seems to be that every building has to have a “Protected Area.” It’s sort of like the storm cellars used in the American Mid-West to protect against tornadoes. The Protected Area is supposed to be reinforced and stocked with food and water in case of attack.
When the Iron Dome detects an incoming attack, an alert is sounded and people have anywhere from 15 seconds to a minute to get into a protected area before the rockets or artillery strike. Fortunately, the Iron Dome system is extremely effective at shooting down incoming rockets and artillery.
10: The Sabbath and Hotels
Because of the laws against working on the sabbath (Jewish law, not legal), a lot of people will pack up their families and spend Friday night and Saturday in a hotel. This is great for the families because they no longer have to worry about preparing food or any of the myriad of things that are normally prohibited by Jewish law. The hotel’s love it because they are booked every weekend.
Unfortunately, this means there are dozens of young kids tearing up and down the hallways, yelling and screaming and generally being kids.
And that is my list of 10 things you (probably) didn’t know about Israel. One thing I’ve learned through my travels is that on a person-to-person basis, people are usually very friendly and that observation has held true here too. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed my time in Israel and I’m looking forward to spending a couple more months here working and exploring. I hope you enjoyed my list and if you have any comments, feel free to post them below.