Monday, April 23, 2007

Occupying Territory

Israel is a challenging place to be for those who appreciate or like to defend their "personal space", a concept that does not quite exist here. People jostle, bump and squeeze "in line", often without acknowledging or apologizing. In their minds, nothing untoward has happened, so there is no need to say anything.

At an elegant meal following my second cousin's Bar Mitzvah, the tanned, blonde, lacey-shoed fashionista to my right, whose ski-sloped nose looked suspiciously like others I've seen, reached over and plucked my dessert fork without batting a thickly mascaraed eyelash, let alone asking me if I was planning to eat dessert (of course I was!). I was astonished yet knew that what she did was not unacceptable here, and that the appropriate thing to do would NOT be to ask her to give it back but to pilfer a fork from somewhere else. Not wishing to do either, with some difficulty I ate my cake with a spoon, which she had not appropriated.

At a Jerusalem clothing boutique with only three dressing rooms, all being used, a young Israeli woman wanted to quickly try on one skirt. She asked a customer, an American, if she could just borrow her dressing room for a few minutes.

"There is a line," I insisted, as I was #2. No one seemed to care. I believe the American relented, exiting the changing room to show her husband how a new outfit looked. The Israeli seized the moment and occupied the cubicle.

But then the American returned to the dressing room, with the Israeli still in it, and the next thing I heard was, in an exasperated voice, "I didn't mean that we'd use the changing room together. That's not how we do things in the U.S."

No, it's not. But, Israel is not the U.S. (Many Americans, lulled by the prevalence of English speakers in Jerusalem, tend to forget).

The Israeli woman left the changing room, shaking her head at the rebuke (ridiculous to her!) while the husband shook his head at the Israeli's chutzpah.

At an unanticipatedly popular session of a conference on Jewish writers, all the available seats were taken, both on chairs and on the floor. Yet latecomers continued to enter the room and occupy space that, at least to my American eye, did not appear to exist. I had arrived on time and found a spot on the floor, against a wall, where I could sit cross-legged. With just 30 minutes left of the 90 minute session, a large man arrived and decided to plunk himself down next to me, if not slightly on top of me. It didn't bother him, or he didn't seem to notice, that his right leg was pressing firmly into my left thigh. I could not decide if I should try to push him out of my territory, asserting my the borders of my personal space at possible injury to myself (he was much bigger than me!), or withdraw my leg so that we'd no longer be touching, in the process shrinking my hard won spot.

Israel's dilemma writ small?

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