Guest column by Alexandra Friedman | My large, extended family

· December 8, 2013, 5:50 pm   ·  Updated December 8, 2013, 10:58 pm

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“Excuse me, can you hold the stroller while I go to pay?”

I stared blankly at the woman standing in front of me on the bus, replaying her question in my mind to ensure I had translated from Hebrew to English correctly. I slowly nodded, grabbed onto the handle of the stroller holding her newborn baby and stared in disbelief and confusion as she walked away from me, toward the front of the bus to pay for her ride.

After paying, she returned to the spot where I was sitting with her child, gave me a nod in thanks and sat down.

During the Jewish holiday of Sukkot, my roommate and I had a place to eat but unfortunately, nowhere to stay in the area. A friend of ours mentioned he had distant relatives who lived nearby and that he would ask them if they had a place for us.

Without question, they not only opened their home to us, complete strangers, but also had their middle child, who was home from the army for the holiday, vacate his bedroom so we would be comfortable. They then gave us a key to their home, so that we could come home whenever was convenient, and wished us a happy holiday.

Everybody has a lot to say about Israel, myself included. The discussion surrounding Israel, however, is highly politicized and polarizing, and it often neglects to include the peculiarities of everyday life that are definitively Israeli.

As my time studying abroad comes to an end and I reflect on my time spent in Israel, one of those peculiarities in particular stands out in my mind, and it’s a quality from which I believe the rest of the world could stand to gain something.

I am consistently amazed by the openness, the hospitality and the trust in Israeli society that surpasses anything I have ever seen before. I talk to Israelis about these unique qualities, a tone of surprise in my voice each time. They simply nod or smile and in a straightforward and simple way tell me “Israel is like a family,” each sharing a similar anecdote to the ones I have shared with them.

I used to be bewildered by the sights I encountered here. I saw soldiers with guns around their waists, pushing strollers with their newborn children in them and with their wives on their arms; I saw children as young as four or five roaming the streets and riding public transportation by themselves.

Coming from a world where the lack of gun control leads to tragedy, where children are kidnapped off the streets, where homes are robbed and where even family members cannot trust each other, these sights were unfathomable.

It was only once I began to understand this notion of trust and family in Israeli culture that it didn’t seem so bizarre to me anymore.

Perhaps the most ironic piece of it all is that, given the history of the conflict in Israel, one would think that people would be a little more wary, a little less trusting of others.

In reality, the opposite occurs. No matter how you feel about Israel, its policies or even its existence, that this peculiarity is positive in nature cannot be denied.

Throughout the last four months, I have been fed, driven, housed, paid for and taken care of by the people of Israel, lending real meaning to the idea of people who “would give you the shirt off their back.”

I have sat next to soldiers on a bus with guns around their waists and felt no trepidation. I have held babies on buses while their mothers stepped away to pay. The people of Israel have trusted me and made me a part of their family, and I have benefitted from this glance into a society in which its members truly look out for each other. Israel certainly isn’t perfect, but if you ask me, it got something right.

Alexandra Friedman is a College junior from Marietta, Ga., who is studying abroad in Israel. Her email address is alfrie@sas.upenn.edu.

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