Culture, Identity, Israel

Only in Israel

A few weeks ago I posted this story on Facebook:
“Waiting in line in an extremely crowded supermarket. The woman in front of me, watching the register, realizes that she has only 100 shekels and her bill has gone over. She asks the cashier to cancel a few items. The cashier, who clearly knows her as a regular shopper, refuses: “It’s only a little bit. I’ll pay the remainder. It’s in honor of shabbat – you need nice food for shabbat.” The woman argues: “no, no… I can’t let you do that” but the cashier is adamant, and also refuses offers to eventually be paid back. The woman, finally relenting, dissolves into tears, and the cashier comes around to the end of the counter and gives her hug.”
The post went mildly viral, accumulating comments and introductory words as people shared it with their friends. By far the most common, shared over and over, was the proud statement: “Only in Israel!”
“We are different,” these words seemed to say. “We Jews take care of each other in a way that no other nation ever has or will. For all our brusque Israeli straightforwardness, we have a commitment to each other that is absolute. We care deeply for the strangers among our people.”
As I watched this string of comments develop I became startled, then upset, and then really sad.

The night of this story I was in a lousy mood. I was annoyed at myself for waiting till Thursday night to go shopping, irritated at being such a crowded supermarket with, as they say, “kol am yisrael – the entire people of Israel.” Some particularly obnoxious customers had resorted to swearing and insults as they shoved their way through the packed aisles. Most were politely maneuvering their carts countless times, stoically enduring the half-hour-long lines. The woman in front of me, a sweet lady, was driving me nuts as she chatted with me, oblivious to my toddler kvetching for me to pay attention to him.
The cashier’s act of kindness grounded me. It washed away all the irritation and stress and filled me with gratitude. It reminded me that ten measly shekels can mark the boundary between despair and abundance, between feeling alone in the world and feeling incredibly loved.
At no point did it occur to me that this was a uniquely Jewish or Israeli act. I did notice that the customer was an American woman with lousy Hebrew in a sleeveless dress, and that the cashier, a native Israeli, had her hair completely covered in a snood. I was heartened by the cashier’s instinctive generosity that caused her to care for the person in front of her without regard to the usual boundaries. I would guess, given her appearance and comments about Shabbat, that the cashier’s kindness was motivated at least in part by her religious convictions, and that is a beautiful thing. But “only in Israel”?
Israel is an amazing place. Our people have wrested water from rocks. We have brought an inert language back to incredible vitality. We are engaged in the most profound national project the Jewish people has known for at least two millennia, and it is extraordinary.
When I first moved to Israel fifteen years ago I loved being part of the majority culture. I loved walking through places I knew from the Tanakh and matching up the topography with the stories I grew up on, imagining our foremothers walking the paths I was now miraculously walking. I loved feeling Hebrew in my mouth, wrapping my tongue around the strange yet familiar accent, mastering the language of our own personal melting pot. It never occurred to me to love it because it was “better.” I loved it because it was mine.
I believe in particularism. I believe we are at our best when we draw on our unique history, traditions and literature to do good in the world. Our shared cultural language offers us the vision to contribute in distinctive and meaningful ways. We are strongest and most effective when our actions are deeply and securely rooted in our own fertile ground.
But our particularism becomes both self-defeating and insulting when it starts bordering on exclusivism. We do the rest of the world and ourselves a disservice by constantly looking over our shoulders to see who might be passing us in the race toward national superiority.
My kids spend a ridiculous amount of time comparing themselves to each other. Sometimes I think I might go crazy listening to “Mommy, look what I drew” — “No! Look what I drew! His is just scribbles! Look at my house and flowers and sun! Mine is so much better!”
“Your picture is not awesome because it’s better,” I tell them. “It’s awesome because it’s yours, because it tells me something special about who you are.”
We, Israel and the Jewish people, are extraordinary, and we are also completely ordinary. We are as kind and as selfish, as obnoxious and caring and cynical and virtuous and human as everyone else. We are all of these things in our own unique ways. But we do not have a monopoly on kindness or compassion or morality.
There is so much more healing to be done in this world. But God, if She’s out there, does not play favorites. We are not chosen because we’re better. If we are chosen, it is in order to take who we are and all that we have been granted and do the most we can with it. We don’t need to be the best or strongest or most moral in order to accomplish great things. Sometimes being a supermarket cashier is the most important job in the world.

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