“Really? A Jew?” – 5 real life snapshots beside an Israeli

What do you do when your taxi driver displays three Palestinian flags in his tiny car and then asks you: “where are you guys from?”

I tell you what you do, as I’ve learned during the last 5 years: you don’t answer the truth. And that hurts. And it makes you upset. But this is what you do.

Here are 5 snapshots from the last years that I lined up a year ago. The list grows each day.


Originally published in the Times of Israel on 11/24/2015

***
Being The Girlfriend of Him is not easy. No, not because he would show some very Mediterranean traits now and then, or because he could eat za’atar and Tahini for breakfast, lunch and dinner, or not because he cheers for this weird basketball team called Maccabi. (Weird means: I found the word entertaining).

No. Living with Him is not easy because his passport states: Israeli citizen.

Since I have 10 minutes, I share with you 5 recent conversations just to give you a glance at my life, at our life and what it means to be with an Israeli when you’re not an Israeli, and you’re not in Israel. (You know only 5 because writing takes longer than talking. Otherwise, I would just give you the 10.)

***

Four months into our relationship, one of my best friends – thought, believed, hoped, since then gone best friend – pointed me the question: “Really? A Jew? You needed to get together with a Jew?”
I never saw him again. He never called again.

***

“Yes, my boyfriend is from Israel”.
“Tov-tov, but you [sic] ima Jewish?”
“No, my Ima is not Jewish.”
“You must convert then.”
“I must?”
(Subway talk in downtown Manhattan with an Orthodox Jewish man (!))

***

“Watch him.”
“Why?”
“Because he is OK for you not being Jewish now, but once he puts the ring on you, he will want you to be Jewish.”
“No, I know he won’t.”
“So then his Mother will for sure, they are the worst.”
“His Mother passed away, she will not. And even if she would be alive, she wouldn’t.”
“Well, you know, but I would be very careful”, said my Jewish-hater Jewish classmate at NYU.

***

“Yes, we live together”.
“And his name is this?” (the clerk points on my boyfriend’s ID card)
“Yes, that”.
“Where are you from Sir?” (suddenly, I stop being important)
“This is my file; I think we can focus on me”. (I insist assertively, as I learned)
“But Sir, you’re not European, right?”
“I am British”, says my boyfriend, who indeed has two passports.
“But, you are not British for sure. Where are you from?”
“I am from Morocco”.
I see how my boyfriend is controlling himself, and yet, his little vein on the top right corner of his head gets thicker and thicker.
“Ah, salam aleikum – says the bureaucrat at the local, Belgian commune with pride.

When we leave, I am mad at him. Not the clerk, but my boyfriend.
“Why do you lie about yourself?”
“I don’t lie.”
“Yes, you do. You are not British; you are Israeli, be proud of that.”
“Yes, but this is your file, and I didn’t want to give you trouble.”

I am still mad. Not at him, but the clerk.

It’s not the first time he does this. I mean, it’s not the first time that my boyfriend becomes Marrocconian for a few minutes. He says Morocco, because he’s some roots there, and it eases situations when needed. And it’s needed.

***

“I would take out Hebrew from your CV”.
“But why?”
“Because it can close doors for you.”
“But what if I don’t even want to enter those doors?”
“What do you mean?”
“What if I don’t even want to work in a place where I can’t talk openly about my next visit to Israel, or that my boyfriend is from Israel.”
“So, get prepared for some closed doors, my dear.”
(Said an HR agent in midtown Brussels)

***

And for the last four years, I am preparing for those closed doors. And they do come. But what nobody told me that I would get some other doors opened. And perhaps, I’m happier this way.



Am I a ‘freier’?

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!

Will I ever be enough for you, Israel?

Originally publish in the Times of Israel on 4/15/2016

I’m scrambling eggs on Shlomo Artzi. I am cutting tomato on Rita. I am rinsing the pasta on Avram Tal. Galgalatz is on full volume. (Even if sometimes I wonder who my neighbors are. Not really because of the volume. But because I am listening to Hebrew songs).

Ah yes, I live in the heart of Brussels. I think I need to mention this here.

I know most of the songs by heart. Well, after a while it comes easy as Galgalatz makes sure songs are coming in a diligent rotation. But still, I sing in Hebrew. I am loud. And I only have a shower-voice. You know, the one that sounds good only within a closed area — usually with a strong water flow. But I sing in Hebrew full-heartedly. And you would be bought by the shows I put up sometimes. What if I would even understand the words I am saying?

Ah yes, I do not speak any Hebrew. I think I also need to mention this here.

I am standing in front of the Israeli section at the local Delhaize. The flag – indicating at which international section I am – is once again missing. I am staring at the shelves. It’s me against the silence. And I hate what I am seeing. I hate that they get money from each and every Israeli product, and yet they take off the sign because…

Well, we all know why.

I am standing a bit more there hoping people would pass by and see that yes, I AM going to buy that Israeli wine. And yes, those pickles, too.

There are colorful post-it stickers all over my home. One on the window, one on each door, one on my office table, one on the mirror, one on the milk in the fridge and several others within the wardrobes. It’s not because I am suffering from memory loss. (Not yet at least). I am learning Hebrew words. I am now confident with the stickers on the misrad, halon, delet, halav, but I keep forgetting the washing machine, the dishwasher, and the fridge. I never liked machines anyway.

I developed impeccable skills to spot Israelis. I became extremely sensitive to the smallest resonation of one’s face when I say Israel. I can easily tell if, after my first intimation of Israel, the person in front of me will still keep talking to me. So far, it’s half-half.

I am getting familiar with the political parties. I start to formulate a firm opinion on why I don’t believe in the two-state solution. Of course, you are welcome to challenge me.

I am damn mad at the EU whenever it slaps Israel. As if…as if it has the moral right to do so. And I am equally damn proud of Hungary each time it stands with Israel, just like we did when we said no to the labeling of products.

Ah yes, I am Hungarian. I think I might need to mention this, too, here.

I have two big dreams: to live in New York City (only the city matters) and then to live in Israel (only the country matters).

All this should come in this order.

First, to learn the brazen American confidence and check if I can make it there. And if so, then perhaps I will be ready for the intimidating confidence of Israel.

You guys are truly intimidating. Both of you. And I love it. But I am scared.

The first time I went to Israel it was 2012. I knew one or two words. Both were curses. OK, I knew shalom plus two curse words.

I was holding a parking place on that narrow street in Jerusalem when a woman drives up and starts yelling at me. Obviously, I sensed that she was not admiring my new dress. Pity, because I was really pretty that day. It was my debut in the Holy City.

I heard the two curse words, so I figured I needed to react. I said: shalom plus the two curse words. She left. I can’t say I was polite but hey who is polite in Israel, right? Later on, I learned that this scene just officially lifted me up from being a ‘fraier’.

I fell in love with Israel right there. I loved that she yelled at me. I loved that I could yell back. And I loved that it was all ok. And I knew if we would meet tomorrow we could be best friends also. Because we just did what we needed to do. Not to be a fraier.

My boyfriend was watching me from afar. He was speechless. “This is fascinating: I was running away from Israeli girls, and then I get a prototype in you?” He said as he gave me a neshika ktana.

Ah yes, I am in love with an Israeli, have I not mentioned it yet?

I go to Shabbat dinners. All types of Shabbat dinners. Orthodox, and less conservative ones. And though I enjoy them a lot, I am so focused. I am always just so focussed not to do something disrespectful. Last time, in the midst of all this concentration, I asked a question. But I asked the question at the wrong time. It was all about the timing. I was embarrassed. But then I thought: hey, I am a Christian, and I am trying hard.

Yes, if I would write a news article here, I most probably should have started with something like this:

Virag, a Hungarian Christian (who), living in Belgium (where), dreams to move to Israel (what) soon (when) because she is in love with the country and all that (to be cut by the editor)

This would have been my lede.

And the headline could be:

A pro-Israeli Christian torn between two worlds

Because after all, this is my story here:

During the past four years, my stand with Israel has taken over much of my life. I found myself working with pro-Israeli artists and people who want to liberate art and go against BDS. My firm stand got me more and more visibility. And it was not until recently that I realized how much I am torn between two worlds:

I am never going to be Israeli (or Jewish) enough, but I am already pro-Israeli enough to piss off the rest of the population.

On one hand, I meet Jewish people whose first question is if ima sheli Jewish? If not — which, by now, you know is not — I get a cold shower. No need to say anything, I feel it.

On the other hand, when I say my boyfriend is from Israel I get this: “ah just wait until the ring is on your finger — the whole family will be on you to convert”. Or “how can you go there, don’t you feel bad for those kids in Palestine?” (Sounds cliché, I know. But it is cliché for a reason: people do ask this)

Then I read all the stories of the ‘Olim Hadashim’ who can’t find a job in Israel. Then I hear all about how life is hard in Israel, and that real estate prices are skyrocketing. (Not that it would be any different anywhere else. Just sayin’). Then I see virtual friends leaving Israel for a ‘better life.’

All business as usual.

And then I open the real estate page and start looking for a flat in Israel. Because I still believe I can make it. Because I’ve already proven that I am not fraier.

I am wearing long-sleeves for Shabbat dinners, but I want to scream out that I am a Christian, and I have no idea if I am doing something that offends you.

I am working with Jewish clients, and I am ready to say adieu to people from my life because I choose to stand with Israel, but I want to scream that I am scared that I won’t be enough once I move there.

I am learning Hebrew, but I want to scream that I know you won’t give me a job because there are thousands of others with broken Hebrew and good English (better and much better English), who are even closer to you because they are Jewish.

I went to a lawyer in Israel to ask all the questions you can ask before moving. I pestered her for long minutes. I told her I am a Christian and I have no idea if converting to Judaism is on my agenda in the future.
I asked her, in random order: What are my rights? Can I get a job? Will society cast me out because I am not Jewish? What kind of schools can my kids can go to? What will happen to me if my Israeli husband decides to leave me? Can I stay? Can I keep the kids? Can I keep my furniture?(This last bit, of course, is an exaggeration, everything is else isn’t. But it shows the desperate line of questions I made her answer.)

I am in love with your country; I stand up for you in places where perhaps I should not; I want to understand your culture; I want to learn your language; I am singing your songs; I am in love with one of you; I want to tell you that I feel lucky to have met you.

But will I ever be enough? Or will I always be the one who is just not one of you enough?