Almost Jewish

by Virag Gulyas
Identity | Intermarriage | Israel

Am I a ‘freier’?

February 19, 2017

I was just on my way home from a lawyer visit about how to move to Israel as a Christian when I saw an event: The Secret Ingredient Workshop – How to feel local and create the life you want in Israel organized by Citizen Cafe TLV

They say when you’re in line with your authentic self, synchronicities appear in your life. Since I had one of those days when calmness and clarity overrule all other things, I took this as a sign. So I registered.

I was running late. Like very late. And the sheer irony is that while heading to a workshop aiming to introduce me to how to feel local in Israel, I was just thinking how local I felt already. Driving up from Netanya, I honked, I cursed, I ‘yallah’-ed, I broke all possible rules. (And I loved it). And then I was late, which I would never be in my culture. (And it felt just right). Then I ordered my tea in Hebrew. (And it was a little triumph). Then I felt that inner confidence as I entered the unbearable humid but cozy café room. (And it was genuine). Then I texted my Israeli boyfriend: akol besseder motek – all good my dear. (And it was just business as usual).

As I sat down, I felt as I was about to have a coffee with my friends. Except that everybody was drinking tea. Ten women and a man. And some great vibes around. All of us with a special journey behind and a special story on why we were in Tel Aviv. To be frank, I was expecting everybody to be an alien like me. But it turned out that I was the only alien. Yet again. The only one, who was not yet living in Israel, who does not have any Israeli roots, who is not even Jewish, and who, therefore, can’t be in love with Israel because of pure ideology.

However, all this didn’t matter. Not for me at least.

This lifestyle workshop is the brainchild of Tamar Pross, whose quick recap of her life revealed a versatile, frank, and inspiringly bold woman. She started to talk with passion and confidence. Funnily enough, these are my automatic two words when I try to describe Israelis: passion and confidence. And soon enough, I learned how correct I was.

Living with an Israeli for four years (by now six), traveling up and down the country for the 10th (now 16th) time, making business with Israelis, having Israeli friends left me curious as to what new she could still tell me.

We began by exploring other cultures from an afar glance. I’ve majored in cultural differences, verbal and non-verbal communications, so once again, I was keen to learn something new. From a British-rooted attendee, we heard how we should prepare for a high-level meeting in the UK. Be concise and to the point. Don’t be late, dress appropriately.

Clear-cut. Nothing striking for me, a European. Moving on to France, a French-born young guy told us that today there are no crucial cultural differences when it comes to behavior and rules at meetings. (I need to admit, living around French and French speakers for years, I couldn’t agree. There are crucial differences between a Hungarian and a French interaction. But we were not there to discuss my intra-European matters).

Tamar took over, and things got exciting very quickly. ‘Living in Israel is like living in the Jungle,’ she said, ‘the strong survives the weak doesn’t.’ And it hit me.

The constant strength-showing that I feel around me. As unconscious as it is, it is everywhere. I often joke with my boyfriend (or Mr. D. as he likes to be called in my writing) that he must be afraid to starve because he is eating as if we would be in some sort of competition. And then Tamar interrupts my aha moment: ‘What would an Israeli do if there are three people for one bowl of soup?’ I answered quickly: ‘It would be a who-can-grab-it contest.’ I referred to the story my boyfriend told me about his culture shock upon returning to Israel as a child.

While in Europe kids would queue well-mannerly for their turn during school lunch, in Israel, kids would cut the queue with a motive that the ‘stronger I am, the faster I get to my food’. My answer was not fully accurate, though.

‘Israelis are very tribe people‘, continues Tamar. You are either their friend or their enemy. If you are in their tribe, they will find the way to share the bowl of soup with you. If they connect with you, they will be the first to help you. And it touched me closely again.

Ever since I am coming to Israel, my boyfriends’ friends became my friends. When I moved to New York, they were the first to help me. When I started my magazine, they were the first to support it. Whenever I am here, they reassure me that I would be fine if I moved here. They would make sure I was fine. This kind of belonging to a tribe is what I miss in my own culture the most. We walk over each other so easily. But after all, it all makes sense if we recall history. While Israelis need to survive from the moment they are born, Hungarians were forced to spy on each other for over 50 years under the Soviet era. And some things just doesn’t disappear in a few generations.

‘Have you heard this word, freier?’ – Tamar asks me with great excitement.

‘Nope,’ I shake my head.

Freier, that best translates as mug or sucker is the core essence of Israeli culture. You never want to be a freier, and so each move you take you think of the mantra: I get this, and he loses that.

It is not to say the Israelis are aggressively seeking to screw you up, but it is certainly something not to get surprised by. There are no travel guidebooks that wouldn’t tell you that if you go to a shuk (market), you better start a negotiation on the price. But what travel books don’t tell is that this unwritten prize-fight stretches beyond the za’atar shopping.

As one person put it: he sets up a yearly freier-budget. That is an amount of money that he puts aside for being screwed. As Tamar concluded: “you either accept these things, or you can try fighting them, but fighting them will make little sense.” And though, I did not know the word itself, I was familiar with the concept. Hungarians are no different. We need a freier budget, too. We just forgot to name it.

“What would you advise to someone, who goes for a meeting with an Israeli CEO?” we continue our cultural sightings.

“Be super-confident,” I said. “Here, you all act so confidently that it is already intimidating.” We laughed. And it was true. You have to have a go-getter attitude. Otherwise, you get lost in the jungle. Confidence, in Israel, is a feature you are born with. From the moment you arrive, you have a sense of ‘temporality.’ You are born into a tribe whose right to exist is questioned each and every day.

Rules are here to… ‘break them.’

It was something that we needed no explanation on. It is not to say, Israelis are breaching legal clauses day after day, but it does mean that there is no strict guidance for life. As opposed to my very Eastern European culture, where manners, values, customs are taught and checked upon from very early age, in Israel, people tend to be more authentic. They leave the superficial shell and see through you. They simply radar your authenticity. And this is something I value greatly but also find undeniably challenging. I am not only coming from a post-communist country, but also from the world of ballet dancers. Both of which engraved in me the urgency to satisfy others, fulfill society’s rules and all in all, to act in a way that is required.

After a 2-hour stirring discussion, Tamar drew some conclusive points:
Accept: you can battle or accept. But you are surely better of with the latter one.
Don’t take things personally: a honking on you while driving, a heated sentence while you are shopping, a passionate gesture while you’re talking to a stranger, is not about you. It is about them. This is part of them. And that’s all you need to know.
Make it personal: listen carefully and relate. Ask the questions you want to ask, break the wall that makes you either a friend or an enemy. Being a friend can win you opportunities. Being a friend gives you entry to the tribe.
Knowledge: order impresses Israelis. Know about it, and build on it.
Be authentic: If you have the gut to be who you are, you are going to be OK!

And finally, remember, that coming to live in Israel is the greatest empowerment you can give to an Israeli. For a nation, who feels that the big world is out there, and who questions why would you choose to live in a country where so many things are going on, when you have the whole world out there, your answer is a mirror. A mirror that reflects what deep inside everybody knows: because living here is sexy!

I left the workshop with several aha moments. I left with things I might have noticed before but was unable to define. I left with things that I might have known but was unable to connect the dots of whys. I left with a better understating of my relationship with my boyfriend. I left knowing why every meal with him is a struggle for survival. And I left knowing that now, I can either accept his fight-for-my-life-eating-habits or fight it. But I am certainly better of with accepting it.

Do you have a good ”frier’ story to share? Leave a comment and I’ll share it on AlmostJewish Facebook page!


Get in touch with Tamar if you want to know about her upcoming programs!

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