Fancy Israel

Fancy Israel

We first met Medinat Yisrael, the State of Israel, in 1970. That was the beginning of our own long and ongoing relationship, which actually began before Israel became fancy.

That’s before there were scores of world-class five star hotels, expansive shopping malls, superfast and comfortable express trains, and multilane highways attempting to accommodate the endless flow of large, well equipped cars. It preceded restaurants of every nationality, featuring fine dining, which satisfied the most demanding clientele. Bars, now ubiquitous, were virtually unknown. Housing was mostly far from deluxe and the idea of a 6-year-old with his own phone was delusional. Even a visit to the shuk, Mahane Yehuda for example, was a third-world experience, with lots of tumult from the merchants hoarsely hawking their wares, to the shoppers with their babushkas and agalot (shopping carts). We didn’t know it all those years ago, but Israel was already preparing to enter the next century, ahead of the pack, positioned to lead the world into the 2000s. 

Israel was, and continues to be, a nation on the move, a place where elegance and gloss are now, newly, atop everything. It’s a place where style matters more and more day by day. The examples are abundant. Less is more is no longer the guiding principle. These days less is less, and more is better. It’s evident everywhere and in every facet of life. Socialism is a shrinking phenomenon, but there’s no cap on capitalism. 

When our daughter Lori married her bashert, Michael, in Jerusalem in 1990, her dress was simple and his attire was what today might be called business-casual. They were a beautiful couple indeed — but they were not what one might call ultra-fancy!

Their guests, including many of Michael’s chevrah from the IDF and Lori’s fellow students from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, were, how shall I say this, dressed eclectically. Some of the soldiers came in fatigues. Jeans were definitely acceptable! Yet some others were all decked out for a wedding! All were appropriately dressed because appropriateness was never known to be a factor at Israeli weddings.

And if you happened to have a visitor, you could just bring him or her along. 

Then, unlike now, Israel was not fancy. Clothes didn’t make the man, or the woman. Each made his own path through fashion and style. Comfort counted. Designer names much less so.

Today’s weddings are far more costly affairs, even with seats for all at the chuppah, and no sign of pitot dripping hummus while the ketubah is being read. This is Israel the Nouveau! 

I don’t know about you, but I always loved the informal place that Israel had been. Did you ever see a photo of Ben Gurion with a tie? Did Golda ever appear in make-up, with a professional coif? Nah. Never! Look at today’s Israeli politicians. Love them or, like me, otherwise, they’re all dressed up. In other words, they no longer look Israeli.

The rugged look of the Israelis was part of their national character of course, but being fancy was never part of that style. And all the clothing purchased then was usually from modest neighborhood stores, the shuk, or HaMashbir, a very slightly upscale department store. Today there are high-end malls with high-end prices to match, and world-class merchandise. Pull up in your fancy car, while connected to your fancy phone, park in the underground lot, and soar up to stores with their soaring fancy prices.

Informal, laid back, was the way to visit your friends and family as well. Who had a telephone in the 60’s or 70’s or before? Practically no one at all. Therefore, if you wanted to see your friends Tali and Ilan, you would say, “Let’s go visit Tali and Ilan,” and off you would go. When you arrived, hoping they would be home, you knocked on the door and they were never surprised to see you, just happy! Every home always was guest-ready with cake and coffee and some nice fruit. They never needed to apologize for not feeding you more elaborately, and you never needed to apologize for coming without calling.

Fast forward to our times. People never visit without prior arrangements by phone or text or email or WhatsApp. Today we are not so casual. We’ve all become really fancy!

You only have to join a Facebook group like Secret Jerusalem where chatter about restaurants fills the pages every day, to understand the transition to fanciness. When we lived in Jerusalem in the 70’s the number of elegant restaurants was trifling, even though our finances and family status, with four little kids, didn’t lead us to high-class eateries anyway. We would often go to a tiny restaurant in Rechavia for chicken schnitzel. This was an old-fashioned place where the owner would take the order and then disappear into the kitchen. The sound effects were totally reassuring. We would hear her opening and closing the refrigerator. Then we would hear the hackmesser knife tenderizing the chicken breasts before dipping them in eggs and crumbs, usually matzah meal. Last, we would hear the sizzling of the fresh oil as she fried up the schnitzels, filling the air with the deliciously irresistible parfum of eau de fried chicken. Somehow during that process she would arrange the French fried potatoes so that they too sizzled on delivery, crisp and cooked to perfection. If you would have asked any of us today where did we eat the best meals of our lives, that little unimposing schnitzeleria would have been a well-deserved contender. Today I cannot even find that place. The light rail and the mountains of traffic have obfuscated the simple drive to that delightful spot. 

Currently there are so many upscale kosher restaurants in Jerusalem, as well as in the rest of Israel, that it’s verily impossible to try them all. 

Israeli homes were also less fancy then than now. For example, central air conditioning was virtually unknown, as were screens on the windows. Truth is that some Israelis continue to believe that screens obstruct the airflow. Central heat was also usually a luxury item. I recall living through the Yom Kippur War in a flat in Jerusalem’s French Hill. It was a new neighborhood and our building did have an elevator and a central heat furnace. But in those days heat was expensive and doled out very sparingly by the vaad, the committee, like a co-op board in today’s New York City, which determined that we would have heat for two hours per day, at night. One frigid evening we were set to go out shopping, simultaneous with the heat turning on. Probably not so rationally, we decided not to go. So we stayed at home so as not to waste the heat. Hot water was similarly rare. Often the buildings would each have a dood shemesh — literally a solar-powered hot water heater — on the roof. Unfortunately, they were pretty much useless on cold or rainy days. Today, heating and hot water are usually not central and not vaad controlled. Each apartment has a heat pump for warmth, and cooling, and its own electric powered hot water heater. You can pay your own way to cool air, warm air, and hot water. 

The largest shuks, Mahane Yehuda in Jerusalem and Shuk Ha Carmel in Tel Aviv, have become oh-so-fancy. Hard to reconcile them with what they used to be. There are now sufficient gourmet eating spots, enough to support a veritable burgeoning industry of food tourist guides who can be seen with groups of visitors sampling international and exceptionally delicious food..

This ongoing tale just goes on and on. This is the new Israel. Is it better? Maybe yes. Maybe not. But it certainly is fancier!

Rosanne Skopp of West Orange is a wife, mother of four, grandmother of 14, and great-grandmother of three. She is a graduate of Rutgers University and a dual citizen of the United States and Israel. She is a lifelong blogger, writing blogs before anyone knew what a blog was!

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