After three months hopping around Europe, we opted to take an extended stay in Israel, spending about two months there. We split our time there into approximately a month in Jerusalem, a week in Haifa, and a month in Tel Aviv. As with any place, Israel has its pros and cons and much like my review of Argentina, I’d like to provide my perspective on 5 Things I Love and 5 Things I Hate about Israel.
Things I Love
1) The Food
The food is fantastic and it’s easy to eat healthy. When going out to eat, every food order includes a salad or some raw vegetables, and they always arrive tasting fresh and flavorful (try ordering a salad at an average restaurant in the US and see if you feel the same way). Of course, the less healthful foods are delightfully indulgent such as shawarma, falafel, schnitzel, and sabich, all of which can be had in either laffa or pita along with Israeli-salad, hummus, tahina, and french fries. There is also an amazing selection of fresh, natural dairy products that are often better than what can be found back home (I’m looking at you, cottage cheese) as well as slightly less “natural” ones like ‘shoco b’saquit’, which is chocolate milk in a bag.
There is plenty to savor, and the fact that the standard fare includes so many fresh fruits and vegetables by default makes you feel like you’re making good dietary choices while enjoying the cuisine. In this respect, no other place we’ve been even comes close.
2) The Jewishness
We were in Israel over Christmas, but aside from the highly decorated YMCA, you would have never known. Chanukkah celebration on the other hand was palpable- chanuakkiahs (often erroneously referred to as ‘menorahs’) were lit in windowsills each night of the holiday, the city was adorned with Chanukkah-themed decorations, and sufganuiot (jelly donuts) could be found anywhere baked goods were sold.
I’ve always appreciated and enjoyed the beauty of Christmas decorations back home in the US- and we saw plenty in Europe throughout November, but being in a place that celebrates Chanukkah as its primary holiday of the winter season is a very unique experience. It creates a feeling and environment you simply won’t find anywhere else. Of course, as a Jewish person, it also feels much more personal, and the holiday spirit/decorations feel like they’re tailored to you- unlike Christmas stuff back home which feels like it’s all for everyone else.
3) The Sense of Kinship
The people of Israel are known for their ‘prickly’ demeanor. They have a tendency to be pushy, blunt, and candid. To many newcomers to Israel, Israelis can come off as rude. However, there’s a very good reason why Israelis are often nicknamed sabras. Sabra is the Hebrew word for prickly pear. Wikipedia puts it succinctly:
…with a thick skin that conceals a sweet, softer interior. The cactus is compared to Israeli Jews, who are supposedly tough on the outside, but delicate and sweet on the inside.
Despite their gruff exterior, Israelis tend to care for each other (and visitors) in a way that is rarely experienced anywhere else in the world. They’re more than happy to get involved in your business and offer you unsolicited advice, much as a family member would. If you need some sort of help, you’ll never encounter the bystander effect in Israel- as everyone around will insist on getting involved.
A quick anecdote to drive the point home: a few years ago my mom and sister were sitting in a park bench in Israel. A random woman with a stroller passed by and asked them to please watch her baby while she went to pick up her son from a nearby elementary school. As Americans, they were certainly surprised. Of course it was no issue, and the woman came by soon after to retrieve her child. This type of story sounds crazy to someone unfamiliar with Israel, but tell this same story to an Israeli and they’ll raise an eyebrow and say “of course”.
However, this attitude does have its downsides- asking someone for directions will inevitably lead to a lively debate between whoever is in the vicinity about which route is ideal. Ultimately though, it’s incredibly reassuring to be in a society that truly cares about those around them, and not just in the superficial way often seen in the US.
4) The terrain
Israel is a tiny country. Oftentimes tiny countries have landmarks or natural formations that they point to as being an impressive highlight within their borders, but may not be quite as impressive to the well-traveled or those who have regular access to truly exceptional terrain. We of course have massive and incredibly impressive national parks in the US- something inevitable when your country covers such a large swath of land. Also, by this point in our travels we had been to truly incredible locales such as Patagonia, San Pedro de Atacama, the Scottish Highlands, the Lauterbrunnen Valley, the Amalfi coast, and many more. It’d be fair to say we’re no longer easily impressed.
That all said, I was blown away by the beauty of Israel and the variety of terrain it had to offer. We hiked the Ramon Crater, drove up to the Golan Heights, wandered up and down the hills of Jerusalem, and strolled along the beaches of Tel Aviv. This was in addition to my previous trips to Israel in which I experienced rivers, mountains, deserts, plateaus, beaches, the Dead Sea etc. Every part of the diverse landscape is truly breathtaking. It’s no wonder that Israelis are known for being outdoorsy. For many Israelis, a rite of passage is to hike the Israel National Trail which crosses the entire country.
Next time you find yourself in Israel, feel free to dedicate time to visit sites of religious and historical significance, but please make time to explore the incredible natural beauty the country has to offer. You won’t regret it.
5) The constant change- self improvement
Israel is often referred to as the Start Up Nation, most notably by the eponymous book. Without getting into all the things the book discusses, the component I find most unique is the Israeli mentality of questioning. Israelis have the tendency to question and challenge anything and everything. It could be a sandwich shop owner telling you that you’re ordering the wrong thing and should order this other sandwich. It could also be a low level employee challenging a CEO on a decision being made or path being taken. It could even be a random person on the street striking up a conversation only to then question your life choices.
The point is that challenging the status quo is baked into Israeli culture. This attitude inevitably leads to rapid iteration and constant change- a desire to improve and advance even if it means upsetting the old way of doing things. Ironically, a country with deep historical roots and ancient traditions also has a fundamentally iconoclastic culture.
It’s incredible to go back to Israel and see how much things have changed with each visit. Whether in regards to its technology sector, construction, infrastructure, etc- Israel is constantly and rapidly forging a new path forward.
Things I Hate
1) The Public Transportation
It feels weird to air this complaint immediately after praising Israel’s innovation. Unfortunately, every place has its downsides and blind spots. I suppose I should be thankful there is a public transportation network in Israel, but in some ways I almost wish there wasn’t.
The buses are ALWAYS late, to the point that Italy’s train system can seem downright Swiss in comparison. The pick up and drop off points are confusingly implemented, and there’s no guarantee you’ll get on during busy hours; expect to have to shove and push your way on. Also, there’s a non-zero chance of a bus driver simply skipping a stop just to make up time.
The “high speed train” between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv is stretching the truth quite thin. It opened twelve years later than expected, at a cost of 2.5x (about 1.25 billion US dollars) over budget. The “high speed” aspect has nothing to do with the physical travel velocity of the train- it travels at pretty normal speeds; 60 MPH on average with a top speed of just under 100 MPH. However, it doesn’t have any stops between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, meaning the trip takes less time than a regular train, dubiously satisfying the requirements to be deemed “high speed”. However, thanks to an insane number of escalators at the Jerusalem station along with the mess of the train stations in Tel Aviv means that ultimately, an end to end trip (meaning standing outside at the street in Tel Aviv to standing outside the street in Jerusalem, or vice versa) takes about the same amount of time as taking the bus from one city to the other!
We made use of the public transportation system when we had to, but we definitely walked as much as possible in an effort to avoid it.
2) The Service
As mentioned in #3 in the Things I Love, Israelis are not known for being warm and fuzzy on first impression. While this does give you the sense that you’re getting a far more “real” interaction with a shopkeep or waiter, it can certainly be offputting. As an American, I have to come to expect and enjoy the typical chipper and upbeat service you typically find throughout the US. Of course, by this point we were eight months into our trip and I had become somewhat accustomed to standards of service that rarely met those of the US. Also, this was my fourth time in Israel, so I already knew what to expect. That being said, the type of service typically received in Israel was definitely still somewhat jarring and not particularly comfortable for me.
If I had to describe the worst service we received, I would describe it as brusque, unattentive, and dismissive. If I were to describe the best Israeli service (more on that in a moment) I recieved, I would say it was somewhat disinterested and neutral. One place we went to had noticeably great service, though I quickly realized that was because it had been staffed exclusively by Americans 😂.
A story that I feel sums up the experience of being a customer in Israel is as follows. I needed a small tear in a pair of pants repaired, so I took it to a tailor around the corner from where we were staying in Tel Aviv. I asked him in Hebrew if he spoke English, and he said yes, for which I was thankful as my Hebrew is pretty limited. As we were talking, he asked if I had made Aliyah (moved to Israel), I responded that I hadn’t and was just visiting. He inquired as to how long I had been in the country, and I replied with “about a month and a half”. His response: “you should speak Hebrew better”.
Just your average shopkeep…
3) The Hours
Everything about schedules and opening hours in Israel is weird and confusing unless you’re from there. It’s clear that the concept of ‘listing management’ doesn’t really exist in Israel, as hours listed on a business’s website, Facebook page, and Google Maps listing are unlikely to line up each other, and the actual operating hours may not match any of the above. This seems like it would only be mildly inconvenient until the hundredth time you’ve shown up somewhere that is supposedly open, just to discover that it is in fact closed, with the posted hours in conflict with those listed online.
Additionally, Shabbat (the Jewish Sabbath) makes Israel unique in the sense that much of the country effectively shuts down every week from Friday late afternoon until Saturday night. There isn’t anything inherently problematic with this, but there are two knock on effects that are less than ideal.
The first is that because 90% of the country is completely closed/shut down on the same day, if you need to get somewhere using public transportation or have something you need to purchase on Friday evening or Saturday, you are simply out of luck. If you failed to sufficiently stock up on food beforehand, don’t expect to encounter open grocery stores or restaurants; you’re going to find yourself fasting until Shabbat ends (which can be as late as 8:30 PM during the summer).
The second is that from Wednesday evening onwards, grocery stores are perpetually incredibly busy and crowded as people stock up for Shabbat. Also, forget about doing grocery shopping on a Friday morning unless you hate yourself- stores will be slammed and everyone will be anxiously hurrying to get everything they want/need done prior to Shabbat starting. Keep in mind that things won’t be open or running right up until the last minute either, most places and services will cease a few hours before Shabbat starts, so the afternoon basically acts as an extension of the shutdown. Additionally, public transportation runs hamstrung on Fridays, with the train between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem simply not operating on Fridays at all (at least while we were there).
Also, something that makes Israel uniquely strange to me is the fact there is no weekend in the way we would typically think of one. In the US, people will often go out to eat on Friday and/or Saturday night, and Saturday and Sunday are both non-working days for the average person, though most restaurants and recreational activites are open. In Israel, there’s no weekend, just Shabbat. This means that people usually get a half-day of work on Friday, get Saturday off (with nothing open), and they’re back to work on Sunday (which essentially acts as the equivalent of a Monday in the US). Since everything is shut down on Friday night, there are really only two nights to go out- Thursday night and Saturday night. However, Thursday night in Israel isn’t quite the same as a US Friday night, as most people still have school or work for half the day on Friday. Going out on Saturday night in Israel parallels going out on a Sunday night in the US- it’s the night before the workweek begins. That being said, restaurants are absolutely PACKED on Saturday evening. Expect long waits if you’re even able to get a table anywhere- the entire country simultaneously chooses to go out to eat at the same time on the same night.
Admittedly, during our trip we weren’t subject to typical workdays (since Mollie wasn’t working and I was only working part-time on my own schedule). However, I still found it off-putting to be left without a weekend, it just felt like there was never a day off for people to have normal leisure activities.
At the end of the day, the core components of my complaint are just the downsides of having an entire country run on an identical schedule- everyone is constantly trying to do things at the same time, leading to crowds and congestion.
4) The Car/motorcycle/scooter culture
I should begin by saying that despite drivers in Israel having a poor reputation, they hardly qualify as the worst drivers in the world. That being said, driving in Israel is certainly more like driving in Argentina than it is like driving in the US. However, despite that, driving itself is NOT my primary complaint as it doesn’t even come close to being as awful as what follows. Yes, the drivers are aggressive, but that’s only slightly obnoxious compared to the rest of it.
There is perpetual heavy traffic anywhere near (and of course within) the larger cities. You can never assume you’ll be able to get anywhere quickly, and that includes using the bus. There were various instances where the bus we were taking ended up getting us there 90+ minutes later than was scheduled. This constant traffic in the cities exacerbates the next issue…
Mollie's smile is due to her crepe brule, not the Jerusalem traffic behind her
Cars do not respect pedestrians; if they think they can make a right turn before you get far enough into a crosswalk, they will. Thanks to the pervasive traffic, this means you have to be constantly vigilant as a pedestrian. Of course one should always pay attention as a pedestrian regardless of which country they're in, but there's a difference between looking out for unlikely danger and a keeping a constant lookout for certain danger.
Additionally, we ran into multiple instances of people who thought it was somehow acceptable to drive cars on the sidewalks, and even park on sidewalks or street corners. Thankfully the number of times we encountered active driving on sidewalks was pretty low, though any number above zero is frankly unacceptable. Unfortunately the frequency of cars parked on sidewalks and corners was somewhat high, which meant we frequently had to either squeeze around them or walk into the street to get by.
Finally, by far the worst aspect of the drivers in Israel is the INCESSANT honking of horns. The noise pollution from horns honking was truly unbearable. In Tel Aviv, I would fall asleep to the sounds of car horns, and be woken up by the same cacophony in the morning. It appears to be almost compulsive- every driver is constantly honking no matter what. One of the most egregious examples occurred when we were waiting at a cross walk in Jerusalem. To our right there was a construction zone, and the workers had to block the street as they were moving the heavy equipment out. A coach bus pulled up behind the waiting cars, which put it about fourth in line with a clear line of sight to the construction area- it was stopped right in front of me so I had a fully unobstructed view of the driver as he calmly brought his hand up to the wheel and coolly held down the horn for a good twenty seconds. Given that we were about ten feet away, as well as the fact that the horn on a coach bus is INCREDIBLY loud relative to normal cars, I immediately began to consider the ramifications of strangling a bus driver. I cannot overstate how infuriating the incessant horn honking is, occurring at all hours of the day and night. Going to Hong Kong afterwards even felt like a quiet respite in comparison.
My suggestion- either make “Israeli versions” of cars that don’t include a horn or find a way to police and fine people using them excessively (of which everyone appears to be guilty).
5) The Limited Food options
To no one’s surprise, The Food shows up in both the Things I Love and Things I Hate. As with Argentina and its fantastic Argentine food, the Israeli food in Israel is amazing. However, for non-Middle Eastern cuisine- while options exist they are hardly examples of excellence. You can get passable examples of American foods such as burgers and pizza (in this case I’m referring to American styles of pizza, e.g. NY-style). Asian food options are quite limited however; and don’t expect to be blown away by the best Thai food of your life in one of the few places you can find it. It is definitely understandable- Israel is a tiny country, and immigration to Israel typically comes from a few select regions. Unfortunately, this means that foods from other regions is difficult if not impossible to find, and when available, is typically a watered down imitation.
Truly the best pizza we had in Israel. I would give it a 7/10
Ultimately what this means is that if you go to Israel for about two weeks, you will be blown away by the incredible food. However, as in our case, if you were to spend two months in Israel you will find yourself craving alternative fare; and you'll be basically out of luck. I can tell you that the prospect of heading to Hong Kong at the end of our two month stay in Israel had my mouth watering.