Last night at the grocery checkout, after having unloaded a lot of canned goods, I asked the bagger, in Hebrew, to please not make the bags too heavy. In English, with a heavy Israeli accent, the cashier said to him, "Don't put too many in one bag."
Realizing the bagger spoke English, we began to chat. He quickly informed me that he doesn't speak Hebrew.
"How long have you been here?" I asked.
"I've been back seven months. But I was born here."
"You were born here and you don't speak Hebrew?"
"I'm Arab," he told me.
Sometimes, our cousins look so much like us, I can't tell them apart. This young man was clean shaven, wearing a tee-shirt, baseball cap and a wedding ring. And he spoke nearly perfect American English. It was a terribly novel experience because, as a result of the language barrier, it's so rare for me to have any kind of conversation with a stranger in Israel.
Here are some of the thoughts that were racing through my mind as we chatted:
- He seems like a nice enough guy.
- If all the Arabs were more like him, it would be so much easier to get along with them.
- It's so much easier for Arabs and Jews to get along in Western countries other than Israel.
- How long will he be here before he gets radicalized and wants to kill my people?
- I should be extra nice to him because I'm representing all Jews, especially religious Jews.
- I wonder how he feels working for a Jewish employer.
- I wonder how he feels about Jews in general.
- I wonder how he feels about Israel.
- I wish I could invite him for a meal and a longer schmooze.
- I'm glad he doesn't like it here. Maybe he'll leave and take a few million of his family members with him.
"Everyone else I talk to thinks it sucks here," he informed me. "I got married and came back because the rest of the family is here. But it sucks here."
"Maybe it's different if you're Jewish," I dared to venture.
Saying that seemed a little risky. But he started it by identifying as an Arab.
For Jews having a hard time getting used to Israel, I have a whole pep talk in my pocket. But I didn't want to say anything encouraging to him. Despite the fact that it was Thursday night, I couldn't wish him a Shabbat Shalom. So I just thanked him for his help and walked away.
Later that night, at the airport waiting for our daughter to return from a trip the the US, I saw an Arab couple also waiting for a loved one to arrive. And I started to think about how most American Jews have no idea how, in Israel, Jews and Arabs occupy the same public spaces - buses, malls, hospital rooms, grocery stores, airports, etc. For the most part, we live and worship separately, but we shop, heal and travel together.
My husband has an expression about life in Israel.
"Lo pashut," he often says. It means, "It's not simple."