11 Things About Living in Israel You Learn Only By Moving Here

Enjoying a wonderful outdoor lunch at Motza Cafe near Jerusalem. Israel likes to brandish its Western credentials, but its Mediterranean nature is one of its major pluses. Photo: author.

Think your aliyah pilot trip prepared you for life in Israel?

Think again!

The best way to come to grips with living in Israel … is probably to live in Israel.

Here are a few things that most immigrants only find out … actually they’ve already begun living here.

1. Everything — No Really Everything — Runs On WhatsApp (Or WhatsApp Groups)

If you’ve never heard of — much less used — the instant messaging app known as WhatsApp (not WhatsUp which appears to be Anglo baby-boomers’ favorite mis-appellation for it), then all that’s about to change.

WhatsApp dominates both business and personal life in Israel.

It’s the ubiquitous form of communication used to organize office parties, socialize, and plan neighborhood committees.

Everything has a WhatsApp group. I’m invited to so many that I effectively use my business line as a WhatsApp Group gathering number and my other account for one on one conversations.

Don’t be surprised when your doctor/lawyer begins sending you communications over WhatsApp. Oh, and people looove the voice notes here too (thankfully WhatsApp is finally rolling out automatic transcription of these soon).

2. Almost Nothing Runs Precisely On Time

For those who like to stretch the concept of being fashionably late to its limits, this is probably good news.

As a Mediterranean country and culture, Israelis sometimes adopt a laizzer faire attitude to time-keeping.

Like much cultural nuance in Israel, though, nothing is black and white.

Just as members of the Knesset (parliament) do not typically show up to vote in flip flops and jeans, while it’s probably (sometimes) okay to be five minutes late to an office toast, being 30 minutes’ late probably isn’t.

3. The Customer Is Not Always Right — Sometimes, In Fact, You’d Be Led To Believe That They’re Always Wrong

There are things that Israelis do well — refreshing honesty.

And things they tend to do horribly poorly — like customer service.

When you think about it, that’s entirely logical. Being disarmingly honest and conventional customer service don’t really go hand in hand. You can tell the customer that they’re buying an idiotically overpriced camera, but the impression it leaves isn’t usually a good one.

Americans are often aghast to find that the “yes, sir” service culture they are used to simply doesn’t exist here. Joking about the issue does it a disservice, though. Shoddy customer service — and abusive companies exploiting a captive market position — are real problems here.

4. Many Israeli Websites Look Like They Were Built By A Stoned Teenager Some Time In The 1990s When MS Paint And Popups Were Enjoying Their Heyday

One of the strangest paradoxes of life in Israel.

For a country that prides itself on the state of its technology, it seems to have an amazing talent for cooking up some decidedly old school websites for its own population.

As even domestic-focused businesses become more sophisticated, this is sadly become a thing of the past. But until its recent facelift, Yad2.co.il — a national buy and sell directory — was an outstanding example.

To make an authentic Israeli website, it needs to be hosted on a .co.il domain name. All graphics need to be designed exclusively in Microsoft Paint (that still exists, right?). And popups should appear at least once every five seconds.

This is an official Israeli government website for paying taxes. Replete with some random guy and a superimposed ‘chip’.

A pixel not filled with banner advertising is a wasted pixel. This is the essential premise from which traditional Israeli web design departs.

5. There Are Basically Two Technology Stores: KSP And Ivory. No Wait, EVERYTHING Is Vaguely An Oligopoly/Monopoly.

For those into tech — and I’m one of them — you’ll quickly learn that there are two major national technology chains, KSP and Ivory.

Sure there are a punch of hobbyists’ outlets, such as Plonter, and tech shops that supply business. But if you’re a consumer looking for consumer-level gear, KSP and Ivory are essentially your options.

And guess what?

They appear to typically sell almost the exact same inventory for almost the exact same price.

As one lives longer in Israel, one begins to find dubious oligopolies like this popping up in every industry. They’re part of what makes Israel one of the most expensive places to live in the world. According to one statistics, actual consumer purchasing power in Israel was lower than in every OECD country minus Japan.

6. Amazon Doesn’t Really Deliver Here. Instead, People Use Something Called Zap. And This Crazy Chinese Site Called Aliexpress. They Also Go Justifiably Nuts Whenever Amazon Puts On A Promo.

Firstly, it’s not actually true that Amazon doesn’t deliver to Israel.

What is true is that they don’t ship very much of their global inventory here.

Don’t believe me? Add an Israeli address to your Amazon account and see what you can get that actually delivers here — for less than the cost of the item.

Thankfully all isn’t doom and gloom.

There’s Zap which is an online comparison engine that lets you sift through offers from many (in my experience, typically bad) Israeli online retailers.

Israelis — largely for this reason — also love to buy from Aliexpress, which is basically Alibab’s direct-to-consumer online marketplace. Sure, stuff takes a while to get to Israel (like over a month). But so long as it’s under $75 (after that, Israel charges 17% VAT) it’s cheap and fairly bureaucracy-free.

From time to time — to keep the locals hopeful that one day Amazon will truly operate here — Amazon puts on a promo deal.

One avid Israeli online shopper, who totally isn’t me, sent in this pixeallated image of one of their old order hauls.

7. It’s Really Hot For A Really Long Time. Like It’s Hot Half The Year.

If you’ve never lived in a hot climate before, then checking the climate graph for whatever city you plan on living in in Israel is probably worthwhile.

There are two things worth keeping in mind about Israel’s climate:

1: The summers are very hot.

2: The summers are long.

Here’s Jerusalem’s climate graph courtesy of Wikipedia:

Some notes about Jerusalem’s data:

  • The daily average high is at or above 25 degrees celcius (rounded) for six months of the year. That’s half the year!
  • For five months of the year, there is negligible precipitation.

A personal observation, at least about Jerusalem’s weather: the intermediate seasons in Israel — spring and autumn — are far less pronounced than my country of origin. Jerusalem and Tel Aviv also have remarkably different climates from cities just an hour’s drive apart. Tel Aviv remains hot and humid throughout the summer, including at night. Owing to its topography, Jerusalem’s climate is more “liveable.”

8. Realtors Will Still Insist You Don’t Need Air Conditioning. Politely Ignore Them.

One of the greatest things about Israel:

It’s totally unique — lest you need a reminder, Israel is the only Jewish country in the world.

And simultaneously it’s vaguely similar to just about every other country in the universe. Some examples:

  • Realtors are often sketchy people who will tell you anything to make a sale
  • Government workers commonly go on strike
  • Banks appear to open to the public only when it’s convenient to them and still charge you exorbitant sums for the privilege of doing “business” with them

Case in point: when I was last apartment-hunting in Israel, countless realtors told me that I didn’t “need” air conditioning. Or that I could comfortably live without it.

Apparently the cave-like nature of many Jerusalem rental apartments renders them naturally permanently cold. How convenient!

I would love to know how many of these realtors don’t have air conditioning in their own homes. Although it’s worth pointing out that this AC-skeptic attitude is prevalent among the more old-school Israelis who grew up at a time when air conditioning wasn’t almost universal in the country. By “old school Israelis” I mean the elderly Yemenite women you’ll find throwing bread to stray cats. Every neighborhood in Israel has at least one.

If you come from a much colder climate like I did, I personally advise you not to listen to these real estate agents.

My post-aliyah life in Israel can be divided between the clammy era before I rented my first AC-sporting apartment and the time thereafter. I like the time thereafter better.

9. Driving Here Is Sort Of Crazy. But Public Transport Is Really Good.

Perhaps this is common knowledge among Jewish immigrants who grew up taking summer holidays in Israel (note: my family never did this), but Israeli drivers are by and large lunatics with engines, wheels, and horns at their continuous disposal — the last of which they use very liberally indeed.

But really: driving in Israel is kind of crazy in a way that’s vaguely astounding if you come from a country in which people compete with one another for who can be the most polite and considerate driver around. The good news is that it’s apparently possible to adapt to the oddly aggressive style that dominates on the roads here. My wife tells me that you just have to go to war — I mean drive — every day.

The better news is that public transport in Israel — at least between major cities — is pretty decent. There are now regular high speed trains running between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv which are great both for people without cars and for newfound traffic-phobics like me. Although getting anywhere else in the country is still liable to prove challenging.

10. The Postal Service Is Kind Of Rubbish

Israelis love to make fun of how bad the postal system is here although I’ve actually been really impressed by how little of my prodigious online ordering they’ve lost. Really. They’re not fast. But they rarely seem to lose things.

Doar Yisrael been the subject of comedy sketches (see below).

It has previously ranked as the most complained-about state-run institution — which in a country full of whingers like me really says something.

And it’s well known that it can take months for some letters delivered from abroad to finally make it into our letterboxes (now you know: sending a physical birthday card to somebody based in Israel is an exercise in futility; a bereavement card may as well be addressed to surviving relatives instead).

The likely reasons: like most postal systems, the Israeli one is struggling under fundamentally difficult economics. Far more people are ordering online than sending mail to one another or to relatives abroad.

The second reason is that nobody probably anticipated the extent to which Israelis would pick up on Aliexpress and online shopping in general. The post office has made periodic upgrades to its sorting network. But they still seem to be struggling to keep up with demand.

11. Israelis Still Love It Here In Spite Of All The Above

Israel is a crazy country. That much you probably already knew.

And yet — despite some of the insane features of life here — it’s an oddly enjoyable country in which to live.

It offers a decidedly first world standard of living even if sometimes it feels oddly like a country whose GDP per capita statistic is far lower than what it actually is. Its healthcare system is excellent. And there are many jobs in the technology sector.

I’m convinced that the key to enjoying life in Israel is to cast aside the image that Israel loves to project about itself to the world (that it’s a sophisticated Western ‘little America’ in the Middle East). Those features are true to an extent. But they do the full picture of what it’s really like to live here a massive injustice.

Remember:

  • It’s a Mediterranean country. Tempers can be frayed during the hot summer months. But on the plus side there’s plenty of good weather during the summer and it’s sunny enough to eat outside for a decent chunk of the year.
  • It’s a Middle Eastern country. My cultural impression of the Middle Eastern aspect of Israel’s culture is something like this: rules aren’t the conventional things that we conceive them as in the West. There’s something vaguely spiritual about the way in which Middle Easterners try to swim their way around them. The common description is that rules here are conceived of as recommendations rather than strict edicts. That comes pretty close to depicting reality.

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Daniel Rosehill

Daniel Rosehill

Daytime: writing for other people. Nighttime: writing for me. Or the other way round. Enjoys: Linux, tech, beer, random things. https://www.danielrosehill.com