JERUSALEM -- Between the ages of twenty-two and thirty-six, I lived off and on in Israel. While traveling a lot, I maintained my main residence there for ten of those fourteen years. Yet, since I returned to the United States in 1994, I have only managed three brief visits, the last six years ago. Heading back this time for a four-week sojourn, time enough to reacquaint myself with the terrain, I was filled with both anticipation and trepidation. Getting off the plane from Miami in a foreign metropolis with rapacious cabdrivers shouting guttural imprecations in alien tongues only added to my fears. Then I left New York and flew on to Tel Aviv.
To my very pleasant surprise, the culture of social interaction there has undergone a major modification. Once upon a time, not so very long ago, the experience of contracting to purchase goods or services was as adversarial as the battlefields where the local persona was honed. The first rule of commerce was: the customer is always wrong. The only time a shopper was treated solicitously was when a woman's exterior motif stimulated the salesman's ulterior motive. Not only would they not give you the time of day, you were lucky to get the week or month.
Back in the Eighties, a friend of mine was twisting with insomnia at two a.m. when he recalled that he had not yet sent a telegram of condolence to a friend stateside whose father had passed away. Remembering the Western Union number which was said to work 24 hours a day, he called in to compose his missive. After many rings, the phone was finally picked up by an obviously annoyed employee who thought he was entitled to snooze his way through the night shift.
"What's the matter with you?" the man shouted. "Who sends a telegram at such an outlandish hour?"
Another experience still fresh in my mind was a visit to a government office of some kind circa 1990. This particular functionary was being none too cordial. Looking up at the plaques on his wall, I noticed one certifying his completion of the Dale Carnegie course. Subtly trying to appeal to his better angels, I asked him if he had found the Carnegie program beneficial. He immediately caught on to my approach and he responded with a harsh laugh. "Yeah, they send us to these training seminars, supposedly to expand our horizons. But we don't fall for this weak-kneed stuff."
A third anecdote came back to me when I passed a Jerusalem appliance store where I had bought a refrigerator in 1990. The woman who waited on me gave me a dry recital covering the relative virtues of the three models I was considering. After I had chosen one and was filling out the forms, she handed me one more document to sign. "This is to acknowledge receipt of the microwave."
"The company is running a special promotion where whoever buys this fridge also gets a free microwave." Somehow it had never occurred to her to mention this as a selling point.
This time around I have found a transformed commercial landscape. Already on the El Al plane flying over I was amazed by the degree of sensitivity and care offered to a woman who had slept through the breakfast service. In the shops, storekeepers and cashiers are showing a friendly face to all ye who enter. The surly bus drivers of old seem more relaxed and accommodating. The cab drivers are much less pushy about trying to sell you on letting them charge you an estimated price without running the meter. Even when I had to cancel a $250 jeep tour through the Judean Desert less than 48 hours in advance, the fellow who lost the gig was very understanding, without a single false note in his polite response.
The truth is Israelis were always nice people in a broader sense, stepping in to help people in need. There was no problem of street crime and even heated verbal disagreements almost never came to blows. Still, the constant threat of random violence from lurking enemies had bred an abrasive affect, a pugnacious pose. How nice that they are learning to display their affable natures even where the pedestrian transactions of life are being negotiated.
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