The Israeli way of life is to some extent conditioned by its unusual two-season climate. Israel has an eight-month summer, lasting from April through November, that is hot and dry, and a four-month winter that tends to be rainy and cold. (During some winters there is even a little snow in Jerusalem.) Even in the middle of winter, there are days of intense sunshine with temperatures reaching into the seventies and eighties.
Israeli homes are built of thick stone walls and stone-tiled floors to keep out the summer heat (which they do), but they also retain the winter cold and dampness, giving rise to a situation in which it is often colder inside the house in the winter than it is outside. Since few homes have central heating, most Israelis survive the cold, rainy days by hovering around portable kerosene heaters.
Israelis work a six-day week, with Saturdays free. Almost everything closes early on Friday afternoons, however, in order that preparations can be made for the Jewish sabbath, which begins Friday at sundown. The workday starts early in Israel, with most offices opening by 7:30 or 8:00 A.M. and most food stores by seven o’clock. Except for the larger stores, most businesses take a siesta break during the hottest part of the day, and, since many people are accustomed to resting during this time, it is not considered polite to phone or drop in until after four.
Schools also start as early as seven o’clock, but Israeli school children only go to school for half a day. This can cause problems for the mothers, since it is not unusual for every member of a family to be on a different schedule. Younger children finish around noon, older children around two o’clock, and Dad normally gets off work around three or four o’clock. As a result, most Israeli homes serve the children their main meal in the early afternoon and the adults eat at about five o’clock. The children then have a light supper in the early evening and the adults follow at eight o’clock. Very few homes have a main meal between six and seven o’clock as is customary in America.
Social evenings tend to start late. Visitors seldom come for the evening before nine, and on Fridays rarely before ten.
The cost of living in Israel is very high, and salaries are comparatively low. An engineer, for example, may earn what is generally regarded as a high salary of IL. 1,500.00, or $355.00 per month, and one-third of that must go to taxes of various kinds, leaving the equivalent of $240.00 for all other expenses.
Israeli taxes, comparatively speaking, are rated among the highest in the world, largely because of the insatiable demands of the military and the enormous costs of absorbing the thousands of immigrants pouring into the country. To hold down inflation, some luxury items are taxed as high as 300 percent. This includes most electric appliances, and in Israel even cars are considered a luxury. A Volkswagen, for instance, costs approximately $6,000.00 and gasoline is over 85¢ per gallon. Fortunately, bus transportation is excellent, with buses leaving for all key cities every five to ten minutes throughout the day.
Most Israeli housewives go shopping daily, due to the lack of storage space in their small kitchens and because they don’t have large refrigerators; almost no one owns a deep freeze. Meat is one of Israel’s most expensive foods (a kilo of mediocre steak costs $4.00), so budget-minded housewives serve mostly chicken ($1.20 per kilo) or fish (a local warm-water variety of carp), vegetables, and dairy dishes, to keep the food budget down.
Everything is bought by the kilo, and no one buys a dozen of anything except maybe eggs. Canned foods are very expensive, so most vegetables are purchased fresh. There are no baby foods available other than a few dried cereals. Fortunately, milk is pasteurized and comes in bottles or sealed plastic bags. Bread, which is neither sliced nor wrapped, is inexpensive and exceptionally good. Frozen foods are almost unknown. Because of the high import duties, the budget-wise buyer avoids imported foods; corn flakes, for example, cost two-and-a-half times the price in the United States.
In Israel, housing is a major problem. Single-type dwellings are not only scarce but are also priced far beyond the reach of the vast majority of Israelis. Most people live in apartments that they have bought outright or are in the process of buying rather then renting. The apartments are small, and most rooms serve a variety of functions. The living room is a family room, dining room, play room, study, guest room, and, very often, the parents’ bedroom.
Telephones in Israel are still a luxury. There is at least a one-year waiting list and installation charges run over $100.00 with a monthly charge based on each call made. Television came to Israel a little over three years ago, and, in spite of the high cost of sets, it is by far the best selling item on the appliance market today. Television programs start at five-thirty in the evening and seldom go beyond eleven o’clock.
The Israeli way of life is also very much influenced by the lack of security along its borders and cease-fire lines. Young men and women in uniform, carrying light automatic weapons, are everywhere evident, and the highways are full of military traffic. Besides the two years of basic training required of all Israelis, every eligible citizen can expect to be called up for at least a thirty-day period each year thereafter. In spite of the demands of the military, morale is high, and there is no discontent regarding military service.
Security precautions are necessary in a state surrounded by hostile neighbors, and in Israel they take many forms. Anyone entering a public building, such as a government office or a cinema, must open for inspection any cases, bags, or parcels he may be carrying. Signs in public buildings, school classrooms, and buses read: “Beware of abandoned articles such as briefcases, purses, or other packages; report their presence to the police.”
There are frequent roadblocks by the police to ensure that undesirable elements of the population are not moving about the country without permission. Air-raid sirens are constantly being tested, and signs have been posted in all built-up areas, pointing out the location of the nearest bomb shelters. But all these precautions are taken for granted, and, except in times of crisis, they have a way of disappearing from the consciousness of most people.
As for the Arab-Israeli conflict itself, this in a way hangs like a dark cloud over the tiny nation. This is not to suggest that the Israelis are dispirited or in any way intimidated by their Arab neighbors, because they are not. But Israelis are tired of war and all the insecurity that goes with it. The supreme effort to keep the country ready for any eventuality is only accomplished at the expense of a higher, more comfortable standard of living and often at great personal sacrifice; after twenty-four years, it’s beginning to show. (Israel has reportedly endured more strikes for improved working conditions, side benefits, and higher salaries in the last three years than in the previous twenty-one years combined). If Israelis are tired of war, they are, nevertheless, unwilling to settle for anything less than peace; and until that state of affairs is brought about, Israel is determined to stand firm on what it regards as its rights and vital national interests.
The young Jewish state is preoccupied with a number of domestic issues, some of which are standard, but others rather unusual. These include defining who is a Jew; civil marriage (all marriages between Jews must be performed by a rabbi, and no Jew may marry a non-Jew); the related problem of ascertaining the status of a child born to a non-Jewish mother; Sabbath observance; autopsies (a practice looked upon by some orthodox Jews as an extreme sacrilege); waves of crippling strikes; Black Panthers (a small movement of discontented youth who feel that they are being discriminated against because of their Oriental background); lack of housing; inflation; and the usual quarrels resulting from a coalition government.
In spite of the problems, most people adapt quickly and comfortably to the Israeli way of life. There is a certain dedication and a feeling of oneness among Israelis that seems to catch you up and sweep you along with it. In short, Israel is an exciting, stimulating place to live—even more so to those who recognize or acknowledge the religiously significant events that have transpired in this land in the distant past and, perhaps of even more immediate interest, the world-shaking developments destined to take place here in the future.