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The Quirkiness of Israel - A Book Review

All photos from "Unexpected Israel" by Ruth Corman

Unexpected Israel: Stories you never read in the Media

By Ruth Corman

Gefen Publishing House, 2016

184 pages. Hardcover. NIS128.

Available direct from This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or from Gefen and Israeli bookstores

Reviewed by Pamela Peled 


Recently, I was invited to a festive event at one of Israel's Holy of Holies – an access-restricted government office. The guard at the gate asked my name; his face lit up at hearing it. "Do you teach at the IDC?" he asked, "My girlfriend is your student! She told me about the explosive discussion in your class today."

That was an "only in Israel" event deluxe … I doubt the guard at the Pentagon would have heard of me.

These Hatikva moments are ephemeral and hard to explain; the same way as our impassioned class debate could not have had the same meaning in countries where students aren't soldiers too, who zip between tests and target practice.

In her book Unexpected Israel, Ruth Corman zeroes in on these indefinable experiences and portrays the heart of Israel – the ice-cream men on the beach bellowing "Artic Artic" as they shlepp their cool-boxes; the macho men fastidiously fanning their fires at the Independence Day al ha'esh, nostalgic singalongs that never go out of fashion; friendships formed doing army service in the IDF. She sweetly incorporates her own life into the broader picture. In "The Joy of Sax", she whips through a brief history of Jaffa and a Jaffa saxophonist who repairs musical instruments with the story of her dad, an accomplished jazz musician himself. 

The cat’s eyes have it . . . as seen on a garbage bin in Israel

Corman travels the length and breadth of our tiny country, discovering the unexpected (a leopard, for example) and weaves the tale of tracking it down with legends and strange happenings (a certain Arthur de Mosh from Sde Boker once woke to find one in his bedroom, trying to catch the pet cat). The Matkot Museum is documented, a strange "palace" of that ubiquitous and annoying-to-all-those-who-don't-play the Israeli beach pastime of banging a ball back and forth between two or more people holding bats – usually right next to the sea shore where walkers have to dodge whizzing, high-speed rubber projectiles. The vignettes range from "caviar to camels, owls to oranges, pomegranates to pilgrims and fossils to friendship", as the blurb on the book promises, and each cameo is accompanied by colorful and atmospheric pictures, taken by Corman, who divides her time between London and Jerusalem.

Israeli habits are humorously and lovingly sketched: how we cross the road (in a law-abiding fashion …?), how Israeli kids drink (more than in the past, but not too dangerously …), how we eat falafel (messily).

A piece on Israel's beaches ("Life's a Beach") includes a quote from Meir Dizengoff, the first mayor of Tel Aviv, who planned to turn his city's coastline into an area of heavy industry, claiming that "Jews don't like to bathe in the sea". Fortunately Tel Avivians proved him wrong by flocking to have their daily dips; plans to industrialize the shoreline were abandoned. 

Proof that two heads are better than one

Nothing escapes Corman's notice: the head wear of religious men, for instance, entails some fascinating details. One explanation for the shtreimel sported by some of the ultra-Orthodox is a decree in pre-war Poland, requiring Jews to be identified, and insulted, by wearing a "tail" on their heads. The rabbis devised a hat from beaver, sable or stone marten tails, wrapped clockwise to resemble a crown. So what started out as an insult became an expensive item that was worn with pride; today a Hasid traditionally gives one to his son on his wedding day.

Corman promises facts that do not make it into the media – and she delivers. Where else can you find Israel's laws on hunting juxtaposed with Bedouin rules of etiquette (and how they are changing). Advice to a Christian Copt on how to sign off on a letter to God (answer: Yours faithfully, of course!) before posting it into the Western Wall is there, on the page before an amusing tale about Bauhaus Tel Aviv, and how this international style was transported to London, at first with very little success. Ian Fleming hated with a passion the home of Erno Goldfinger, a Hungarian refugee who designed himself such a house in Hampstead. Fleming got his revenge decades later when he named his arrogant, self-absorbed criminal protagonist after the European architect.

Did you know all that?

The eighty-plus cameos are filled with those little titbits of information that make life worth living, and tell the story of Israel in a charming way that makes you want to slip on your kafkafim and set out to explore.

Since 2012, Ruth Corman has written a regular monthly column in The Jerusalem Post and her blogsite,(ruthcorman.wordpress.com) features her stories which are now being read in sixty-six countries. 

 

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