For the past week I’ve been staying in Israel, as a guest of Tal, an Israeli student I met in Budapest. During those days I’ve visited many places in the small Middle Eastern country, and seen its inhabitants under various circumstances: from ultra-orthodox Jews praying in Jerusalem to the secular party crowd in Tel-Aviv; from Israeli holiday makers around the Dead Sea to those living and working in a Kibbutz; from the desert communities in the Negev to a high-end campus in Haifa.
One thing that struck me as odd is how culturally similar the Israeli are to my own people, the Dutch. We don’t share any religious views, the climates of the Netherlands and Israel are vastly different, and the long and peaceful history of Holland as a trading nation forms a stark contrast with the Jewish history of persecution, war, and finally a tenuous independence. Yet the similarities abound. The Dutch and the Jews have at least these four cultural traits in common.
Greed is good
Perhaps the most dominant cultural stereotype of Jews is that they are greedy and stingy. The same is said about the Dutch. Is this justified? So far all the people I’ve met in Israel have been warm, welcoming, and generous. And I know plenty of Dutch people who don’t worry about every dime they spend either. (Although both perceptions may be biased because I am Dutch; in the eyes of an Italian all those people may have seemed like total Scrooges.) But there may be some truth to the common perception.
Something that my host told me about the Jewish people is that they will never miss an opportunity to game the system. Nor will they refuse anything that is for free, whether they need it or not. I immediately recognized this from my own country. The only reason we Dutch buy a train ticket, is because we might get a hefty fine if we don’t. If there were no ticket inspectors on the trains, nobody would buy a ticket. When you travel somewhere by train and your ticket doesn’t get checked, it is not uncommon to hear a Dutch person curse that he bought the ticket for nothing.
I used to think that The Netherlands was the only country where McDonalds charged extra for the ketchup (or mayonaise) you get with your hamburger and fries. In the US they are just available for free. But lo and behold, in Israel it’s the same. My host explained: “if the Jews didn’t have to pay for their condiments, they’d just take an extra supply home.” The same goes for the Dutch. A penny saved is a penny earned.
The beauty of language… or the lack thereof
I’ve always known that Dutch isn’t the prettiest of languages. It’s full of guttural sounds and hard to pronounce diphtongues. Words like ‘nieuwsgierig’ and ‘gruis’ make even the native speaker cringe. As an American friend of mine often says: “Dutch isn’t a language, it’s an affliction of the throat“.
But now I’ve found a language that matches Dutch in its ugliness: Hebrew. Hearing people speak Hebrew invokes that same wondering whether they are alright. Hebrew is full of guttural sounds, much like when you’re scraping your throat. To that you can add many ‘shhh’ sounds, like those you find in Polish or Hungarian. Then there’s the rasping ‘r’, the same as in Dutch, which sounds very different from the English round ‘r’ or the Spanish rolling ‘r’. And to top it off, Hebrew also features a sound like you’re about to throw up, like then ending of the English word ‘brawl’ and much like the Polish ‘l’ or the Catalan ‘l’.
Interestingly, both Dutch and Hebrew can be pleasing to the ear if pronounced in a certain way. The people in the South of Holland or in Flanders have a much softer pronunciation, making the language quite bearable. And I’ve heard some Hebrew songs on the radio that didn’t sound bad at all. But the language as spoken on the street is an offense to the ears in both countries.
Food: tasty, but no hâute cuisine
Neither the Israeli nor the Dutch have a great local cuisine. The local dishes that I’ve had during the past week include falafel (deep-fried chick pea balls), ptitim (small pasta balls), tahini (sesame sauce), shakshuka (poached egg in tomato-onion sauce), and hummus (chick pea paste with a variety of condiments). For snacks I’ve had some type of tiny chocolate croissant and the immensely popular bamba (Cheetos but with peanut flavour instead of cheese), as well as some more healthy items such as olives, dates, nuts and fruit. I didn’t try shawarma (shaved meat) or any of the other non-vegetarian dishes.
While many of the dishes I tried were fairly tasty, I wouldn’t normally go out of my way to get any of them. If I can get Italian, Thai, or Spanish food, I would rarely opt for an Israeli meal instead. I feel the same way about my home cuisine. Some typical Dutch dishes are stamppot (mashed potatoes with raw vegetables), bitterballen (deep fried balls with a kind of meat ragout inside), pannenkoeken (pancakes with a consistency somewhere in between American fluffy pancakes and French crêpes, often eaten with salty toppings), and oliebollen (literally ‘oil balls’, a kind of deep fried sweet dumpling eaten on New Year’s Eve). None of them are bad, but none of them are worth seeking out either. The only Dutch food for which I get a craving is Gouda cheese.
Most people in both Holland and Israel simply eat from the various cuisines that have been imported into their countries: Italian, Indian, Indonesian, Turkish, Chinese, Japanese, or French, to name a few. Both Holland and Israel are nations of immigrants. We’ve always had plenty of interesting exotic foods to choose from, and against that background maybe just never felt the need to develop our own cuisine.
The World’s rudest people
The Dutch have a knack for coming across as rude. As I remarked in a previous article, their intention isn’t so much to offend, but rather to be clear and direct. In the Netherlands we feel that if something wasn’t meant to be offensive, you shouldn’t take offense (often to the aggravation of ethnic minorities that don’t share this attitude). Combine this with a highly individualistic attitude and a low sensitivity to cultural differences, and you understand why the Dutch end up drawing stares and jawdrops all over the world.
From what I’ve seen and heard so far, the Israeli can compete pretty well with the Dutch for the ‘World’s rudest people’ award. And just like the Dutch, they’re not intentionally rude. On the contrary, all the Israeli I met were generally kind and helpful when I asked something. But they lack the sense of politeness that you find in abundance in, say, England, Austria, or Japan. The Israeli walk around the public space without much regard for each other, often loudly talking into their phones. On the road they are aggressive drivers. People working in the service industry do not regard greeting you with a smile as part of their job description. Queueing is a necessary evil at best, and if you see a chance to skip ahead of others, you’re expected to take it.
Again, none of this is meant to be rude. It might just have emerged naturally from a culture of competitiveness and efficiency. Why say “good day sir, that’ll be twenty shekel please” when a simple “twenty” would suffice? Why bother having a chat with the doorman to your building when you could be at your desk already? Why wait for someone if they’re just slower than you? If you want to see the real Israeli warmth and friendliness, you have to look past this superficial behaviour, and get close to them and strike up friendships. You will find a kind and welcoming people, with whom it’s pleasant to spend time.
I for one had a wonderful time in Israel, mostly thanks to the generosity of my host Tal and her great friends. The cultural similarities between the Dutch and the Jews made it easier for me to adapt than it might have been for someone with a different cultural background. And aside from the similarities I witnessed many interesting cultural differences, which is what makes travelling so interesting.