Israel vs. the US

Cultural Differences in the United States and Israel

This past summer I spent six week studying abroad in Israel. Although I had not foreseen this assignment then, three weeks of Sociology classes have given me the ability to look back upon my conversations in Israel and evaluate them not merely in the context of students and counselors but also in the context of people from different cultures meeting for the first time. Early in my trip it was hard to distinguish different cultures on the campus where I stayed, surrounded mostly by other Americans in my predominantly Jewish group, but as the program went on and I interacted with more Israelis and observed their customs, I came to discover many viewpoints commonly held by Israelis that are not as commonly held by Americans.

One of the first differences I came across was the fact that the Jewish subculture in Israel is not subcultural at all, but on the contrary quite mainstream. Judaic shops lined the streets in every city I visited, Hasidic Jews in heavy suits and dresses were no uncommon sight even in temperatures above ninety degrees Fahrenheit, and most restaurants had signs proclaiming that they served only kosher food. At the same time, however, the breadth of Judaism in Israel also surprised me. Here in North Carolina, I belong to a Conservative synagogue where most people practice Judaism in similar ways, observing the same Jewish holidays and rituals and generally dressing up to attend services. In Israel, however, many people viewed Judaism much more casually, and one woman I spoke with even went so far as to say she only kept Jewish by living in Israel. Additionally, I was quite surprised when I attended Orthodox services in Jerusalem wearing jeans and a collared t-shirt—and wasn’t the only one dressed so casually! Of the few times I experienced culture shock in Israel, that was among the most memorable.

Another difference between American and Israeli cultures is their respective views on the environment. Americans generally disregard the environment and its needs, often using disposable household goods without considering the consequences. Israelis, on the other hand, tend to be much more environmentally conscious. My counselor Yigal was especially active in promoting recycling on our campus, helping us to sort all of our recyclable goods into appropriate bins and then emptying them frequently. Once one of my classmates told him that she had never recycled batteries before, and his surprise was clearly evident when his eyes widened and he was taken aback for a moment. Yigal explained to us that he was not the only Israeli concerned with the environment, that due to Israel’s small size and limited land resources, the threat of trash piling up and taking over usable land space is on every Israeli’s mind.

Judaism and environmentalism are both examples of material and non-material elements of culture, from the physical (tallit and tefillin; recycling bins) to the immaterial (religious values and respect for the environment), but they are certainly not the only examples of differences between American and Israeli cultures: Israel’s predominant language is Hebrew, which differs from English not only in non-material ways (the words we speak) but also in material ways (Hebrew has its own alphabet and is even written from right to left, the opposite of English).

Israeli food also differs greatly from American food and is a prime example of Israel’s material culture: Instead of macaroni and cheese and pizza, Israel has falafel (crushed chick peas seasoned and fried) and shawarma (meat, usually lamb, cooked on a rotisserie and shaved off to be served), both of which are eaten in pitas like many Middle Eastern dishes, and instead of cakes and pies, Israel has baklava (a layered pastry filled with nuts and syrup or honey) and knaffe (vermicelli-like pastry over sweetened cream cheese covered in syrup) for desserts.

Because Israeli culture is so ingrained with Jewish culture, it was often difficult for me to distinguish between the two. This leant me a more culturally relativistic viewpoint than I might have had in other parts of the world as I was able to look at certain aspects of Israeli culture (such as most shops closing on Shabbat, or the public celebration of Jewish holidays) without being unaware of why such practices are observed (you’re not supposed to work on the Sabbath, for example). There were still times, however, when I did feel especially ethnocentric, such as when teenagers were freely able to buy cigarettes or when, while going through airport security on our way home, we neither had to remove our shoes or have liquids over three ounces confiscated. My being so accustomed to the opposite of such practices in America, I couldn’t help but be taken aback when I saw the norms of my culture completely ignored in theirs. Of course, there were also elements of our culture that some Israelis found odd: Yigal, for example, could not understand the pairing of chocolate and peanut butter that is so popular in the United States.

Perhaps one of the biggest differences between Israeli and American cultures is also a perfect example of how social context shapes our personal decisions. For example, it was my decision to begin college after finishing High School; however, if I were living in Israel, I would not have had the option of going to college after High School but would have joined the army instead, as is mandatory for most citizens in Israel. Yigal, like my three other Israeli counselors, had gone through his army service before our trip and had only just been accepted to college near the time our program ended. What would surprise most Americans even more is that Yigal is already twenty-four, six years older than the expected age of eighteen to start college in the US.

In conclusion, it is now clear to see how two cultures, even when united by common factors, such as religion, can differ extensively in both the material and non-material ways that define them as cultures not just locally, but also globally.

Class: SOC 210 Intro. to Sociology
Topic: Society and Culture
Grade: 125/125
Date: September, 2009


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