What’s it all about anyway?

“Thank you” I said to the man in the flat tweed cap holding the park gate open for me. “That’s absolutely alright” he replied, as I walked through. He crossed the other way into the park, with a dog on a lead, and went on his way.

It was such a brief, passing interaction, but it brought a nostalgic sense of the quiet, pleasant way of British living that I’d missed flooding over me.

Being back in the UK, even for just a week, has triggered all sorts of thoughts about cultural differences between the corner of Jerusalem I’m calling home this year, and the corner of greater London I call home in general. And it has taken me right back to my ‘first’ gap year 12 years ago, and my perception then of the differences between the same two cultures.

If you’ll forgive the barrage of sweeping generalisation that is inevitable with this kind of cultural comparison, I’ll go on. Without a doubt, every thing that I’m about to characterise as particular to one of my two worlds, could be said of parts of the other. Nevertheless I really feel a certain difference, so, I’ll go on.

Life here in Jerusalem, whether you’re religious or secular, seems to be lived at 100 volts. It’s intense. Even meetings in cafes like the one in which I’m writing this blog, are passionate affairs. People fling their arms around one another, cackle loudly, argue, wave their hands in the air. Back in my England home, encounters are more measured, restrained, even flavoured with a degree of nihilism.

If this is true of relationships between people who know one another, it certainly is between strangers. The cliches about avoiding eye contact on the tube are accurate. People retain an affable distance physically and emotionally. Not so in Israel. Here, you’re part of one big family, like it or not. Like your family, strangers will look after you when you’re in need. Like your family, they will also offer unsolicited advice on what you’re wearing, what’s healthy, how to parent, what to order on a menu, what your family planning decisions should be, how to spend money… Actually, thinking about it, even close family in the UK wouldn’t be this intrusive. I secretly love it. But it’s so different.

This brings me to politeness. I’ve missed the sense of  ever-present British politeness here. But the non-politeness goes beyond a cultural difference; I think it’s more of an ideology. My Israeli relatives tease me for saying ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ so much. For them politeness is a facade, a false barrier covering true feelings. I think they might also see it as a bit of a social indulgence – a silly game to be played between people who know the rules.

There are other differences I’ve felt too. The standard of living is generally higher in the UK. People are more into ‘things’. Body image is of central importance. Less so here I feel, where women’s clothes, in the religious world but also beyond, are draped more loosely and aren’t designed to show off the body beneath. Maybe more of this in another blog, but for now suffice to say that life here feels characterised and motivated by passionate, feeling-fuelled encounters with others, and a far cry from the more restrained, respectful mode that orders British society.

Back in 2004, I felt a different set of tensions. Aged 18 and fired up by religious passion after a year studying in an orthodox all-girls seminary, every small move in life in Jerusalem seemed imbued with a sense of great import. Every moment was to be used wisely because time was short. There was so much Torah to be studied. My actions and speech could make a real difference to others so every word was weighed, every activity considered carefully. A mundane everyday errand to buy milk in Jerusalem was an act of building the State of Israel. My prayers could really affect the world. Even my choice of boyfriend had a potential impact on the future shape of the Jewish people.  

I’m painting a bit of a caricature here, and ignoring the cynical streak that was quietly present throughout my whole year at seminary, but nevertheless, coming back to England in 2005 after a year immersed in that world, was a shock. Back in England, I was horrified by the many ways people found to distract themselves from what I considered to be “actually important”. Parties where drinking obliterated all memory of the night, watching banal TV programmes, fashions whose aim was to show off as much as possible. I found middle class distractions distasteful too: luxury products, social posturing, wasting time intricately decorating a cakes…

Am I sounding like a self-righteous brat? Well reader, I changed. I can now think of little better than wasting time intricately decorating a cake. And while getting drunk and forgetting the night before still isn’t my thing, my entire approach to what is “actually important” has shifted. Back in England a fortnight ago, I was delighted to come across a whole article on the best way to make vegetable crisps from scratch at home. I sighed a deep sigh of relief to see neat rows of houses with well-tended, keep-up-with-the-neighbours front gardens. And I silently brimmed over with happiness when a man with a tweed hat held a park gate open for me.

Because while life is about using our time wisely, and while I still believe that Judaism calls upon me make a difference in the world, I believe that life is also about slowing things down, savouring those experiences where infinity seems captured in a moment, being kind to one another and kind to ourselves, training ourselves in the mindfulness that comes from paying close attention to an intricate task, and enjoying the sights, experiences and bounty of the world we get to live in.

There you go – the meaning of life. Now ignore all of this and go make some root vegetable crisps.

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