It had been almost ten years since my last visit to Israel. Naomi and I were supremely excited to travel there for ten days at the end of last month (I'll admit that holidaying sans kids added to the anticipation).
In the near-decade since last time, nothing has changed and much has changed. Kissing the mezuzah on the way in to the airport made us feel right at home. Ben Gurion International has experienced Extreme Makeover since I last saw it- it's big, modern (with the traditional Jerusalem stone touch) and efficient (our suitcases made it out before us). New highways crisscross the country (all in excellent condition) alongside high-speed trains that run between the burgeoning major cities.
We were based in Jerusalem (where else?), which is a slick, modern city superimposed over ancient cultures and historic structures that beckon from in between the high-rises, all set against the backdrop of Eternity. Even the smaller towns (like Tsfat) have had a facelift. You feel growth and development everywhere.
But, nothing's changed.
Israelis still drive recklessly, have poor manners, walk right into you on the street and chain-smoke. Security remains a concern, yet the populace lives. Despite disproportionate global condemnation, Ahmadinejad's nuclear jihad, Syria's agitation and Hizbolla and Hamas' ongoing belligerence (not to mention the volatility of Israeli Arabs), Israelis laugh and go about their business. Six-year-olds walk their baby siblings to school (even in such hotbeds as Hebron) and take late-night buses.
Back in Joburg, people lock themselves up at night. 9PM is the unofficial curfew for many and fear of crime s more paralysing than violent crime itself. We could learn something from the Israelis.
There's something else we could learn from them.
You cannot be a Jewish tourist in Israel. As soon as you arrive there, you are considered family. You'll be jostled on the street like anyone else; they'll offer unsolicited advice on your clothes and shopping choices (like the woman at the Machane Yehudah market who told Naomi which pomegranates she should put back and which she should keep). Israelis will yell at you (as our taxi driver did when it took more than 30 seconds to load our luggage) or call you- a perfect stranger- motek/ sweety. Or they'll flit back and forth between both attitudes in one conversation (like our taxi driver). They treat you like family with no holds barred.
(We passed an altercation on Ben Yehudah Street on Friday, a street vendor was screaming at two heavily armed policemen. A friend noted that every second person in Israel carries a weapon, yet they bawl each other out in the streets. Normal people would never confront someone who is armed, but Israelis are family and know that a screaming match goes no further than that.)
What touched us most about Israelis- and this is a great lesson for us all- is how they dish out blessings. We entered shops and they returned our "Shalom" with "uvracha". Before Shabbos they wished us and they added a timely "Chag Sameach" for Tu Bishvat (an almost non-event outside Israel). On the way out of shops, restaurants, taxis and our hotel, we were wished success, a safe trip and a string of other brochos. All from strangers- or rather family we'd never met before.
According to the Talmud even a simpleton's blessing is potent. Proffering sincere blessings rather than the pleasantries that Westerners habitually exchange creates a positive environment and a healthy attitude towards the next person. It also brings blessing because G-d treats us as we treat others.
Give someone a blessing today.