Where we tell it like it is

I’ve been living in Jerusalem for nearly 9 years now. Ironically, the very thing that drove me nuts about living here is something I’ve come to value and appreciate.

Living here, I am struck by the realness of the way that we deal with life.

I don’t mean to say that life in other places is somehow superficial. I’ve had some incredibly rich life experiences both in NY and Melbourne, and a very brief stint in the Ukraine many years ago.

It’s just that living in Jerusalem feels somehow more real than anywhere else I’ve been. When I say real, I mean in your face. You-can’t-run-away-from-it kind of real.

Here people don’t shy away from telling you what’s happening in their lives. I used to think it was just the therapist in me… now I know otherwise – many Jerusalemites spill, and do this with everyone and anyone.

When I first moved here I was shocked at how there was seemingly no pretense from people I interacted with. I can remember sharing a shopping experience with an Israeli relative. I was telling her that I was annoyed about how I was often greeted at the kupah (till) with a sour check-out person. This of course was usually following an often-grueling shopping experience involving pushing and elbowing.

After all, everywhere else I’ve been, customer service seems to be a BIG thing. People are trained to leave their personal lives at home and to greet customers with a lovely smile and “Have a nice day”.

My cousin responded, “Why should a person who’s earning as little as 25 NIS an hour, who can barely pay their bills be smiling? What do they have to smile about?”

And soon after it hit me. This place is not for the faint-hearted or the fake. People living in Jerusalem wear their hearts on their sleeves. No one has time and patience for fakeness, because living here is too real. We just say it like it is…we do this to survive.

Being on a subway in New York City, although you come across all sorts of characters, the mainstream population more-or-less keep to themselves. When you shop, and bring your items to the till, you can almost always guarantee that you’ll come across a pleasant person but know nothing about their lives. The emphasis on professionalism is so strong that no one would dare share what’s happening for them. They could be going through a massive relationship trauma, have just lost a good friend, or have a child struggling at school, and you would never be the wiser.

On the one hand, it’s lovely to think the world around us is swimming in peace and loveliness. But not knowing what’s really happening for people around us creates distance. It keeps us enshrouded in a safe puffy cloud of silence. It makes us feel disconnected.

Keeping a safe distance is important at times. It protects us from getting hurt or being taken for a ride. Jerusalemites, I’ve noticed, take bigger risks even where connection is at stake. And, at least in my opinion, they’re emotionally richer for it.

I see this all the time when I’m on the bus. It’s a stark contrast to taking public transport anywhere else. When I take my baby on the bus in her stroller I don’t even think twice about asking for help as I go to pay, or as I struggle to get off.

I also wouldn’t think twice about striking up a conversation with a total stranger about where they send their kids to school or camp, or how they like their babysitter.

In most other places, I wouldn’t dare. It would seem weird or inappropriate.

I can’t tell you the number of gripes I get about people’s workplace etiquette, or lack thereof. Crazy run-ins at the bank, doctors’ office or Tipat Chalav. Insane kids friend’s parent stories…the list is endless, I hear it all. And guess what, I’m not unique.

In Jerusalem, we know our lives and history are so intertwined that most of us wouldn’t contemplate a world where we didn’t ask after a fellow neighbor without expecting a true and meaningful answer.

Everywhere else, when someone asks how we are, we respond, “good,” which means anything from, “I had the worst day ever”, to “fantastic”, to “none of your business so go poke your nose elsewhere.”

Ask the same question in Jerusalem, you’ll often get a good chin wag going.

Sure, I’ve been hurt here too by opening myself a bit too wide. But even the times I’ve been hurt for sharing too much too soon, I still come out ahead. Since each time I’ve opened myself up, I have an opportunity to feel someone else’s soul and feel that connection that I often find missing elsewhere. This makes the nine good experiences out of ten well worth it.

I used to think not knowing what was happening for the people serving me was ideal. I never imagined how much richer my life would be surrounded by people who live with their hearts on their sleeves.

Take Shabi for example. If you live anywhere near Beit Elisheva park in Katamon, you know who I’m talking about. Shabi’s makolet (in the picture above) has been a mainstay in the area for decades. His late father opened the makolet in 1978. What so many love about going to Shabi’s is the way he shares his life with you. It feels like the local well of ancient times. It’s a place where you find out local news, meet up with friends and share one another’s joys and sorrows.

I can’t begin to tell you the number of significant local and national events I learned about at Shabi’s makolet. A whole lot of them. For example, during Israel’s last major war, Tzuk Eitan (Operation Protective Edge), I learned many details of the war from Shabi before hearing about them in the media.

The warmth I feel and the connections I make from hearing stories and sharing life events with Shabi and others like him is so amazing for me, that it makes me feel that there really is no other place in the world that I would rather call home than Jerusalem.

Micki Lavin-Pell

Posted by Micki Lavin-Pell

Micki Lavin-Pell is a Marriage Therapist, Relationship Coach, wife, mother of 4 and avid tap dancer. She has a weekly podcast called Real Relationships on www.jewishcoffeehouse.com. She can be found on www.mickilavinpell.co.il.

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