Like a Sabra
Being a nonnative to Israel, it’s been hard to navigate. I’m not a sabra, or born in this land. Although I’ve had some magnificent guides in my friends, they haven’t always been around to help me. Many times I have to do things on my own. And sometimes, that can get tricky.
Wednesday morning, Inbar left me at the local mall, which was fantastic because there was an Aroma Café to work on my computer and have a cup of coffee at. Aroma is a huge chain of coffee shops throughout the country, and although we have our own version back in Los Angeles, this was the real deal.
I felt pretty confident in my ordering abilities as I moved to the coffee bar under the black, red and white sign.
“Café, b’vakasha,” I said. That means, “Coffee, please.”
And then he started talking to me, and my mind drew a blank.
“Lo Ivrit,” I replied. That means, “No Hebrew.” He pointed to the coffee cups, and I motioned for the bigger one.
“13 Shekel,” he said. Clearly, my cover was blown as a clueless American as I fished through my coin purse for the appropriate coins. He handed me my receipt and nodded.
“Toda raba,” I replied.
“B’vakasha,” he replied. That means, “You’re welcome.”
There are about 20 or so words and expressions in my arsenal, although I have added a few since I’ve arrived. Even though most people speak English, not all of them do or do it well. I’ve been at dinners where either the older generation doesn’t speak English — typically more secular families — or the younger generation can’t — usually more religious ones.
For me, a big part of traveling is not bringing attention to myself. Although I do like hitting some of the touristy locations, I prefer to live the way the natives do for a while. That means hitting all the local hot spots and adapting to all elements of the culture, such as public transit or local festivities. For me, it’s like trying on a new costume and walking around for a while. It means really seeing a place, not just looking at the highlights.
It’s not always possible when you have a nasty little language barrier. Although I know how to read Hebrew from years of Sunday school education, it’s completely different when it’s taken from prayer language to conversational communication. Trying to get directions is difficult when you’re not familiar with the very city you’re in. Traveling on a bus where every stop is written in a different language, even in an alphabet you know makes it difficult to figure out how to navigate. Trying to haggle with a sabra in the shuk for a good price on halvah is a little tricky when you don’t know any numbers beyond seven.
And yet, I wanted to be a part of this culture for the short time I was there. I wanted anywhere I went — especially Israel, which is supposed to be my homeland as a Jew — to become a sort of home to me.
When I went up to Ma’alot to visit Lauren, we went to go pick up her husband Avi and head to grab dinner. We pulled into a small town with a hole in the wall burger joint on a dirt road, bundling up as we stepped into the night.
We walked into a small room with a counter for the cash register. There was writing all over the walls with a giant Pink Floyd album cover in the middle of it and the speakers were playing “Valerie” by Amy Winehouse. The owner was tall with a pot belly and a kind face, standing over the stovetop where the burgers were cooking. He turned and greeted Lauren and Avi with a giant grin.
“He makes the best burgers in the world,” Avi said. The man nodded and asked me where I was from. When I told him Los Angeles, he laughed with a giant twinkle in his eye and then asked what I wanted to take away.
As he prepared it, I looked around this tiny restaurant and smiled. Here was the group of local kids who were starting to wear their costumes for Purim. Then there was the group of three guys who were sitting in the corner having beer and a good conversation together. Then there were the three of us.
As he handed me pens to write on the wall, I realized this could have been anywhere. Being a sabra was not necessarily about knowing the language or being able to haggle. It was simply being, carrying on and living a normal existence in any part of the world you live in. It was finding your spot in the universe and taking full charge of it, making your mark on that small little spot on the wall about how thankful you are to come home again.