No it’s not the fried chicken (everywhere in America, ehhh in Israel). Nor the hummus (America’s is a joke). Nor the Middle East conflict (yeah, America doesn’t have one of those, at least not at home). Nor our dancing skills (sorry Israel, Americans are pretty good).
It’s one word: generosity.
Before I dig in, of course Americans can be generous. Many are. Americans have high levels of volunteerism and some have done truly heroic acts of altruism.
But there is a difference. America is a society founded on individualism. Individual aspirations trump almost all other considerations. The realization of your dreams- your career, your family, your you- that takes first priority. In America, people ask kids: “what do you want to be when you grow up?” Not “how do you want to be?”
While some groups have found safe haven in America- Catholics in colonial Maryland, Jews fleeing pogroms, Syrians and Iraqis fleeing war- the overarching theme of migration is the American Dream. And the American Dream is $$$. It is to strike gold, to build a career, to win the lottery, to work hard, to buy a house with a nice lawn. Even to send money back to the motherland. Whatever the shape it takes, money- even when understandable- plays a huge role in the American psyche. As the largest and most powerful country in the world, with the most capital, how could it not.
It’s worth reminding Americans that this is not how most of the world thinks. While I hardly begrudge someone their success- and I admire the dynamism of American entrepreneurs- I’ve learned in Israel that this is hardly the most important thing in life.
In Israel, you can flip almost every American social norm on its head. Here, you can go into any restaurant and charge your phone and get free water- the latter, by law. And without buying a thing. In a desert country with water shortages. In fact, the offer to pay for it would be seen as strange, unnecessary, maybe even insulting. Why would you give me 5 shekels to charge your phone? Do you think I’m stingy? Israelis love to help and the idea that help should come at a financial cost, as a transaction, is disturbing to us. It’s not that we never charge for things- we have a dynamic if not as wealthy economy. It’s just that this business-like approach to life starts and stops at the office. One of the reasons we don’t say “please” and “thank you thank you thank you” all the time is because it’s not necessary. Help is not given because it deserves beatification. It’s given because that’s how we live.
Before my American friends get defensive, let me give some concrete examples. My friend Yarden worked at American Jewish summer camps. She noticed that when a kid opened a bag of chips, the chips were for him. If someone else wanted one, they had to ask- it was understood that he bought the chips, he received them, they were his. In Israel, I worked at a summer camp years ago. I remember being astonished that a group of 10 kids would share one water bottle. Eww! This is unsanitary. Sure enough, the kids did get sick. But guess what? They also learned to share. In Israel, when a kid opens a bag of chips, the chips are everyone’s. And they dig in.
On the bus, people have asked me for my candy- and I’ve given it without second thought. And on the train last week, a guy was trying to give his girlfriend candy, which she refused. So I turned to him and said: “if she won’t have it, I will”. And he happily gave me it.
My friend Dalia is a Reform rabbi in Haifa. I met her at a Shabbat service in Tel Aviv, we talked for about 20 minutes. A good chat 🙂 Days later, I was headed to Haifa and asked if I could stay with her. Because that’s how things work here. She apologized: “I wish I could host you, but my husband and I have plans. Would it be okay if you stayed with my parents?” Would it be okay? Yes. It was quite fine- her mom force-fed me homemade Iraqi kubbeh, talked with me about her Arabic class, and shared with me all her thoughts on Israeli politics. I then went to my private air conditioned room. I had never met her before and I felt totally at home.
I could tell you story after story- but I have thousands of them. These are not unique stories- not to me, and not to other Israelis. Generosity and a sense of community are paramount here- no one would even think to question them. The idea that your self takes precedence over the well-being of your family- your nation- is a strange one here. In America, there’s a sense that by realizing your aspirations, you are strengthening everyone. Here, there’s a sense that your aspiration is never above the well-being of your neighbor. Jew and Arab- this is the norm. I’ve traveled to one hundred cities and towns here in a year- of every religion and culture- I would know.
While America was founded on rugged individualism (which has its advantages when it comes to individual rights), Israel was founded on community first. The kibbutz, the original style of Israeli settlement, was a commune. And to this day, even on the ones that have left the socialist model for a hybrid privatized one, the sense of communal identity is strong. People in Israel of all backgrounds are very proud of their communities. Many think the idea of moving an hour away is ridiculous. They’d be too far from their friends and family. The idea of moving from New York to California is an absurd one for most Israelis. You’re going to see your family twice a year? Here, that’s not a relationship. I once met a Bedouin woman who lived 20 minutes from her brother in another village, and she hated visiting there, because it was far and not as nice. 20 minutes. Pride of place.
Here the sense of community attracts people from all over the world. It’s worth noting most Jews end up here as refugees. Quite a different dream than a picket fence and a thick wallet. As they say, if you want to make a small fortune in Israel, arrive with a large one. Until the past two decades, the Israeli economy was a lot more third world than first. And even now, salaries are much lower than America despite being quite an expensive place to live. In short, nobody comes to Israel to get rich.
And the ethos reflects this. The dream, at least as far as Jews go, is to live in a state where we control our destiny. Our self-realization comes about by way of communal self-realization. And whatever we do- whether it’s high tech or working with kids- we are taught that giving back is not really giving back. It’s giving to ourselves, to each other, to us. It’s a mitzvah.
I remember a friend in middle school saying there was no such thing as altruism because people still did it for some sort of personal satisfaction or gain. Even if it was praise from someone. While we can debate the merits of this (I just met with Sderot firefighters fighting Hamas blazes- I can’t imagine their salaries compensate for the fact they might lose their lives any day), I’d argue even if she’s right, she’s wrong. Because in Israel, by making self-realization and communal realization synonymous, everything we do here benefits us both as individuals and as a society. And it blurs the lines between those distinctions. I once had a lawyer, a friend of my rabbi, who I had never met and still never have, review 3-4 long leases for me for free. And other than a thank you, expected nothing. It could have cost hundreds of dollars. But what to most Americans would seem like an extreme act of generosity worthy of praise and praise (and reminders of how much it cost), to an Israeli seems so normal that such over-the-top exclamations seem excessive, even fake. As I had to explain to a German guy who came to Israel to apologize to his forlorn lover- and wanted to give him money as an apology. Not going to work here…
In other words, when an Israeli is generous, it doesn’t have to be self-less because it is helping our entire people. In fact, by definition it is self-full- but not self-ish. By pursuing our dreams, by sharing with one another, by loving each other- we are lifting all of us up including ourselves, for we are part of a collective. Which succeeds when all its members, like a kibbutz, contribute in a sense of communal caring.
The other day I met the most fantastic Americans. My friend Harry is a lone soldier from New Jersey. He’s an an American Jew- now Israeli- who volunteered for the Israeli military with no family here and under no obligation to do so. I met him on a bus a few months ago while he was trying to pick up a girl in his American-accented Hebrew. Turns out it was his birthday, so I took him out to baklava and let him stay with me- that night. And whenever the hell he wants.
He then invited me to stay in his room at a kibbutz up north, where he and other lone soldiers from the States stay when they’re off duty. Which I did this past week. Harry was not there, but his friends were. Young, 20-something American Jews who made aliyah like me. And volunteered to serve in our defense forces. To work crazy hours, to sleep on beds without linens, to charge up hills, to barely sleep, to get yelled at in Hebrew- and to put their lives on the line for my ability, for our ability, to live safely as Israelis. Surrounded as we are by Islamic terrorists of all sorts of stripes.
Maybe there’s no such thing as pure altruism, as my friend suggested. My soldier friends get a sense of purpose, a great work out, life skills, and more from their experience. And they also get from me a room in Tel Aviv and a fun night of food touring whenever the hell they want. Because they are my brothers and sisters. Like all Israelis. Especially them. Because the point is the benefit they’re getting from this experience benefits all of us- and shows courage, kindness, and a willingness to sacrifice. Things you can’t quantify, but you can feel as my heart pulsates at the joy of seeing them laugh. Even as I know they may go to war all too soon, just to keep our dream alive.
In Israel, we don’t really debate the nature of altruism nor of self-realization. We don’t really have time. We’ve got bigger things to care about. We simply try to do what’s right. Whether it’s to our individual advantage or not. Towards a Jew or not, towards an Israeli or not. It’s how we live.
When I made aliyah, I left America behind. Especially living in Washington, D.C., perhaps the least altruistic place in America, I felt angry and ready to leave. Unsure if I’d even come back and visit.
What I didn’t expect was to find my favorite Americans here. Young people, like me or like the lone soldiers, who ventured out and tried something new. Something not for your resume or your mortgage application. Not for you- but for us. For good. To serve in the military, to build a new life, to explore. As I’ve done with my blog which now helps thousands of people, from Saudi Arabia to Indonesia to experience and understand Israel. And I love writing and exploring- I feel satisfied and I help my community. We grow and appreciate the hope that surrounds us.
Maybe the reason Americans live in angst about their futures is because they’re asking themselves the wrong question.
It’s not “what do you want to be when you grow up?” It’s “Amir- share your potato chips”.
p.s.- the cover photo is from a store I found in Italy that sold American junk food. I bought special Skittles we don’t have in Israel 😉