Three Years in Israel
Updated: Apr 1, 2021
(1600 words, 5-6 minutes to read)
Note: This is about my personal experience and point of view after 3 years in Israel. You may not agree, and you may think I’m simplifying issues that are much more complicated. Both critiques are fair, but please let me do my best to express myself anyway.
From October 2017 through September 2020, I lived in Israel, for a short time in the city of Rehovot and the rest in Tel Aviv. These three years have been a learning experience; I learned a lot about myself, about the world, about how to relate to other people. I could probably fill a long and probably boring volume with my adventures and some simple life-lessons, and I may do this in the future.
I could wax poetic about the collision of secularism and religion (a long-standing problem that exists in Israel more clearly than any other place I know), or about the desert (which truly is a metaphor for life unto itself), or tell fun stories about the amazing people I’ve met, or whatever.
But instead, I’d like to tell you about my favorite Hebrew word:
(pronounced “kha-feef”, or like “ha-feef” with a little cough in your throat, and note that unlike English words, it’s read from right-to-left)
Now, I’m not a native (or even proficient) Hebrew speaker, and apologies in advance to those who are, as I’m sure I’m way off in technical linguistic understanding. But let me tell you what “kha-feef” means to me, because I think it captures something interesting.
You see, my favorite words are those which don’t have a simple translation in English, and חֲפִיף fits that category:
Google Translate misses the meaning I care about, translating it as “overlap”;
Morphix clarifies that it’s Arabic slang for “carelessly, superficially, shoddily”;
ContextualDictionary.com suggests either “it’s all good” or “no worries”;
My favorite is Reverso, which translates חֲפִיף as “keeping it loosey-goosey”.
All of these (except Google) get at some piece of what חֲפִיף seems to capture. It’s kinda careless and shoddy, but no worries because we’re keeping it loosey-goosey.
I think Israel is a country of חֲפִיף. Don’t be angry! I mean that as a compliment. I’ll explain.
Israel is a young nation, officially founded only in 1948, but it’s also an ancient nation dating back to Biblical times. In much the same way, the official language of Israel is relatively new, adopted increasingly over the last 100 years (starting from scratch, mind you), but it is derived from an ancient language. Modern Hebrew attempts to capture the essence of Ancient Hebrew (the language of the Torah or Hebrew Bible), while making adjustments and additions to make communication in modern terms possible. So the beautiful words “In the beginning, God created the Heavens and the Earth” are in there (“בְּרֵאשִׁית בָּרָא אֱלֹהִים אֵת הַשָּׁמַיִם וְאֵת הָאָרֶץ”), but also modern words like “hamburger” (הַמְבּוּרְגֶּר, literally “ham-bur-gur”) and “phone” (טֶלֶפוֹן, literally “te-le-fone”).
In general, the Hebrew language is extremely simple, containing only about 33,000 words; compare to ~130,000 in French or ~170,000 in English. This is nice for me, an outsider, as this makes it comparatively easy to get proficient in Hebrew. (I’m still not, though!) Yet it can also create problems of nuance. Consider another of my favorite Hebrew words: כָּבוֹד (pronounced “ka-vode”). This word is usually translated as “respect”, but can also mean “honor”, “glory”, “praise”, or even sometimes “wealth”. Each of these concepts has a different meaning in English, but in the absence of a lot of supporting language, it all gets flattened to the single word כָּבוֹד.
So in the Bible, does it say that we should honor God, respect God, or glorify God? When I smile at my friend and say “כָּל הַכָּבוֹד” (“kohl ha-kavod”), am I wishing her “all the honor”, “all the respect”, maybe “all the wealth”? In English these questions makes sense, but in Hebrew, not so much. This kind of thing, writ large, makes the Hebrew language fairly חֲפִיף, in modern terms.
Let’s zoom out even further. The founding of Israel in 1948 was met with much anger from powers throughout the Middle East, and controversy around the world. In the subsequent 70 years, Israel has been in involved in 8 recognized wars and many more armed conflicts. Even in peacetime (like today), there lingers a sense throughout the country that war might be right around the corner, and soldiers may have to take arms at any time. Every citizen and long-term visitor comes to know the Air Raid Sirens that blare throughout an area when rocket-fire is detected nearby. (I ran to the bomb shelter a few times during my stay.)
But does a typical citizen live in fear that their home or workplace might get bombed or rocketed, as happens somewhere each year? No. Those I met mostly shrugged their shoulders, having accepted the lingering spectre of rocket-fire as a nuisance at worst. There’s this sense of, “Hey that’s life man, gotta keep on living! We’re still standing and doing fine, what can you do?” To me, that’s pretty חֲפִיף too.
If we bend the rules of Hebrew just a little, we can construct a simple sentence: “אֵיזֶה חֲפִיף” (pronounced “ay-zay kha-feef”). This might mean “How חֲפִיף!”, in the same manner as you might say, “How fun!” or “How sad…” I don’t know if this construction is allowed, but let’s go for it. I’ve encountered lots of situations in Israel where it feels like all you can say is “!אֵיזֶה חֲפִיף”.
When (true story) the electrician comes over and fixes your AC unit with duct tape and loose wire, you might throw up your hands and say “!אֵיזֶה חֲפִיף”. In the end, my AC worked just fine… not great, just fine. But it got us through the summer!
Or when (true story) you go to a restaurant in downtown Tel Aviv, you might see their outdoor sound system looking a little… janky. Oh well, it works, “!אֵיזֶה חֲפִיף”
As the saying goes, don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the passable.
Israeli barter culture fits the theme too. In the outdoor market, there is no “price”; instead the price is whatever people agree to, and there’s a real skill to the dealing. (I suck at it.) It happens in more formal settings too, at the bank or when signing a rental contract; the rules change depending on who you talk to, and it really pays to argue. Most bureaucratic systems I’ve encountered in other countries are overly rigid, but the Israeli system is overly loose, if anything. Rules that depend on who you talk to imply that you, the customer, don’t know in advance what the rules are, which forms to fill out, which phone calls are necessary. Often this is resolved by a spirited argument (yelling!) until one side just does the job somehow.
This led to some personal frustrations–for example, I had to go to the bank 5 consecutive times on different days just to order a new checkbook, waiting an hour each time, because every banker I spoke to had a different procedure in mind. Probably if I had argued more with the first banker the job would have gotten done, so I guess it’s partly my fault. As frustrating as this can be, it does ironically lead to a sort of beautiful flexibility in the system. Somehow, things get done, even if it’s by a different method every time it happens. It works; things turn out pretty much fine. אֵיזֶה חֲפִיף.
The background aura of barter culture gives rise to an interpersonal intensity that I wasn’t prepared for; it’s likely part of the rudeness people often attribute to Israelis. They’re in your face, and not shy about telling you how they feel–but they’d tell you that’s only because they’re just trying to get the job done. There’s a friendliness in the “rudeness”. If you get a flat tire and block traffic, someone will yell and tell you what an idiot you are… but there’ll for sure be no shortage of people rushing over to help you get you back on the road. Sometimes, both will be the same person.
Some accuse Americans of smiling to your face while they stab you in the back. In Israel, I experienced the opposite: people will yell to your face while at the same time going way out of their way to help you.
Other miscellaneous things fit too: both the backpacking and rave cultures in the desert; the run-down apartment buildings (most look old and ratty on the outside but often they renovate the inside over time); the fact that the bars are packed every night of the week until 1AM; and so on. It’s a mess; it’s a party; it’s half-way figured out but good enough for today; you have what you need, why complain?; it’s loosey-goosey, it’s all good, סַבָּבָּה man! All signs point to חֲפִיף.
If I had to try to sum up, I might say that what I experienced in Israel over three years was largely a system of short-term fixes. This makes sense to me, all things considered.
Extending myself way beyond my borders of competence, I might dare to speculate that this kind of system might not be that surprising for a people that have been historically enslaved, subjugated, nearly genocided multiple times. It might not be that surprising that a people who have largely been denied stability might be a bit present-focused. That over time, without strong expectation of a long-term future, they might come to seem short-sighted.
(Why bother to fix that AC unit perfectly, when we might be at war next week?)
But who knows. In the end, my personal experience in Israel was largely חֲפִיף. It was a mixture of trials and pains with triumphs and joys, simultaneously the most beautiful adventure of my life and a frustrating mess. A friendly hug and an angry shout in my ear. This all seems perfectly appropriate.
I loved it and I can’t wait to go back and visit.
Thanks to all the beautiful people I’ve come to know there.
“אֵיזֶה חֲפִיף” ❤️