The Leisure Culture of Israel
by Simon Griver
The Nation that Never Stops
Visitors to Israel are often surprised by the vibrancy of the country’s night life. Tel Aviv’s main streets are jammed with traffic until well past midnight, while late night revelers pack the Mediterranean sea front, Dizengoff Street, Old Jaffa and trendy quarters like Sheinkin and Florentine well into the wee hours. Many of these night birds have started the evening at a theater, a concert hall or cinema. Recently, Newsweek named Tel Aviv as one of the world’s top ten hot spots, echoing the Tel Aviv municipality’s own public relations slogan and averring that “like New York, Israel’s largest city never sleeps.”
The old saying goes that “Tel Aviv plays while Jerusalem prays.” However, even demure Jerusalem lets her hair down at night. The cafes of Ben Yehuda Street and the Nahlat Shiva pedestrian mall, the bars of the Russian Compound and the discos of Talpiot enjoy a very busy “after dark” trade. And these scenes of night life, much of it outdoors, are repeated throughout the major cities and towns of Israel. Israelis have irrepressible energy, one of the essential ingredients in building a nation. It often generates surprise that Israelis can devote so much time to frivolity when the demands of nation-building are so intense. But it is this very appetite for life that has enabled the country to absorb immigrants from 80 different nations; permitted democracy to flourish despite the fact that most of these immigrants come from nations in Eastern Europe and the Middle East with no democratic traditions; and created a highly developed economy, underpinned by high-tech industries, to a point where Israel enjoys a standard of living on par with Western Europe. But while channeling the lion’s share of their enterprise and dynamism into the task of nation-building, Israelis still have energy to spare for leisure activities.
Globalization Alongside a Distinctive Culture
Today, Israeli leisure patterns are very similar to those throughout the Western world. Israelis may stay at home and watch CNN, Sky or the BBC as well as 50 other channels on cable TV. Or they may choose to go out and watch the latest Hollywood blockbuster at the cinema, see a live concert featuring a famous European or American pop group, or eat a hamburger at McDonalds or Burger King.
But within these global trends, there is a distinctive Israeli culture, which reflects both the country’s modern reality and its Jewish traditions – the Hebrew language, Israeli music, dance, literary traditions and cuisine.
Most television viewers prefer to watch stations which broadcast in Hebrew. These channels include original documentaries and drama in Hebrew dealing with Israeli topics as well as issues of universal interest. Several dozen local movies are produced each year, and local pop groups have excelled in fusing western and eastern rhythms to create uniquely Israeli music. And hamburgers, hot dogs and pizzas are rivaled in popularity by falafel and shawarma – lamb or turkey grilled on a horizontal spit and eaten in pita bread.
Although Hebrew, the biblical language of the Jews, has been resurrected for modern use and is the contemporary linguistic vehicle of Jewish culture, another distinctive aspect of Israeli life is its multi-lingualism. As you sit at an outdoor cafe, the people at the neighboring table may be speaking in Arabic or Russian , Yiddish or Amharic, English or French, Spanish or Hungarian. Israelis will switch languages with consummate ease. Cable TV reflects this polyglot culture, with material in most of the aforementioned languages and others broadcast regularly. Moreover, Israelis will go to the cinema to see an eclectic selection of the latest movies from around the world.
In the early years of the state, few Israelis could afford to travel; still, leisure trends reflected international fashions of the time. In 1948 the cinema was king, but less Israelis indulged in other luxury leisure activities like dinner-dances or going to restaurants, cafes or bars. Consequently, Israelis spent much more tune in each other’s apartments, visiting friends and family. In this pre-TV era, conversation as well as games and songs ruled the proceedings. Some might have had a piano or even a gramophone – playing 78’s, of course. Telephones in those days were few and far between, so people would simply drop by.
The mass media – radio and the press – were also popular. The government-run Voice of Israel (Kol Israel) broadcast on four wavelengths. In the early years of the state, there was a proliferation of newspapers some 25 in Hebrew alone, as well as a half a dozen Arabic dailies and many foreign language publications, such as the Jerusalem Post in English. Within a few years, the afternoon newspapers – Maariv and Yediot Ahronot – emerged as the leading dailies, along with the more highbrow Ha’aretz and the Histadrut’s Davar.
When Israelis did go out, people would stroll up and down trendy city thoroughfares to see and be seen. The Hebrew word Lehizdangeff (a neologism meaning to stroll aimlessly on Dizengoff Street) described this pursuit. Few people had cars, and the preferred forms of transport were bicycles or buses.
Of course, the beach was always free, and Israeli social life, especially on Saturdays and holidays, would often revolve around it. Racketball, a game in which participants hit a ball back and forth in the air with small wooden rackets, a cross between tennis and table tennis, emerged as a favorite beach sport.
Not only were vacations abroad unheard of, but most Israelis could not afford hotels at home. At best they would go and stay with family and friends elsewhere in the country. If they were lucky, they might know somebody on a kibbutz or be able to to rent a vacation home in the Galilee or elsewhere. Nevertheless, Israelis did get to know the countryside. From the early days of the state, the concept of “yediat haaretz ” (learning about the land) was viewed as crucially important. Schoolchildren, either within the framework of the schools, scouts, or youth movements, were taken on tiyulim (trips) to get to know their country. In the old days they stayed in camping grounds, and over the years more frequently in youth hostels, field schools or small hotels. This pursuit has remained popular over the years.
Shaping a Culture
Israelis took pride in their cultural institutions from the very beginning. The country had – and still has – one of the world’s highest theater-going rates. The Habimah Theater, which was founded in Russia in 1917 and moved to Tel Aviv in 1932, emerged as Israel’s national theater. The Cameri, established in Tel Aviv in 1944, and the Haifa Municipal Theater, set up several years later, also became leading theatrical companies. In addition to performing in their own cities, these companies took their productions, which included both original Hebrew plays and translations of English language hits, to theaters around the country.
In the early years of the state, Yiddish theater was tremendously popular. In the 1950s there were as many as seven Yiddish theater groups, concentrating mainly on popular melodrama. As the years passed, Yiddish theater died out, while Hebrew theater grew in leaps and bounds, producing many original works, some of which were also performed abroad. In more recent years, Russian immigrants set up the Gesher Theater company, a world class theater which performs in Hebrew, with a number of Russian productions. English language amateur theatrical productions can also be found.
Israel boasted two first-class, well-subscribed orchestras when independence was declared the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra in Tel Aviv and the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra (JSO). The IPO, in particular, is a world class orchestra which has flourished under the baton of Indian-born maestro Zubin Mehta, while such international stars as Yitzhak Perlman, Daniel Barenboim and Pinchas Zuckerman began their careers with the IPO.
The IPO is based in the Mann Auditorium, adjacent to the Habimah Theater; this complex originally served as Israel’s premiere arts location. But since the 1980s it has been rivaled by the Jerusalem Center for the Performing Arts, which includes the Jerusalem Theater, the Henry Crown Auditorium (home to the JSO) and the Rebecca Crown Theater. This is also the home of the annual Israel Festival, the country’s most important arts festival, which attracts the best in drama, music and dance from around the world and draws an audience of over 100,000. Most recently the lavish new Tel Aviv Center for the Performing Arts houses new companies such as the New Israel Opera Company and the Rishon Lezion Symphony Orchestra.
Fusing East and West
Popular and folk music began with the ballads and songs of the first pioneers. Choirs were formed, especially in the kibbutzim, and communal singing was a popular pastime in the early years of the state. The army has been an enormous influence on music, with graduates of army entertainment troupes becoming leading pop stars, actors and television personalities.
Musicians of Asian and African origin became more popular by the 1970s, while by the 1980s popular musicians began to combine eastern and western melodies to create a unique pop culture. Such stars as Ofra Haza and Ahinoam Nini (Noa) have attained international success with their Yemenite Jewish music.
Religious choirs and music have always remained distinct from the mainstream secular tradition. Concerts of liturgical and cantorial music are often sectarian and especially arranged for single sex audiences.
Israelis are also eager patrons of dance. The Inbal Dance Company was founded by a group of Yemenite dancers while the Batsheva Dance Company, Bat Dor Dance Company and the Kibbutz Dance Company perform classical and modern dance with choreography by local artists. In recent years, the Karmiel Dance Festival held each summer has emerged as the premiere international dance event in Israel.
Folkdancing has always been a staple leisure activity, from the very night of independence in 1948, when tens of thousands of Israelis celebrated in public places by forming circles and dancing the hora. Today Israelis are familiar with the steps and movements of numerous folk dances, and many attend public folkdancing events on a regular basis.
Patrons of Culture
Israelis are avid museum-goers, ,and the few museums which existed in the country’s early years have proliferated to 150. The most important of these is the country’s national museum, the Israel Museum, which opened in Jerusalem in 1965. It houses the Dead Sea Scrolls as well as major collections of ethnography, art and archeology. The Yad Vashem Museum in Jerusalem, perpetuating the memory of the six million Jews who perished in the Holocaust, is also one of the country’s most visited museums. In Tel Aviv popular museums include the Diaspora Museum, the Eretz Israel Museum and the Tel Aviv Museum of Art. In Haifa, museums of ancient art, modern art, prehistory, and more are to be found. Israelis also like to browse in art galleries, especially on Tel Aviv’s Gordon Street and in Old Jaffa. Popular items in both museums and galleries are paintings, sculpture and Judaica.
The Israeli cinema was slow to develop because of the austere living conditions of the state’s early years. But by the 1960s, the movie industry was averaging about one new film per month. Most films dealt with local issues such as the Israel-Arab conflict, the absorption of new immigrants and social tensions; today some reflect more universal issues. These are shown, of course, alongside the numerous feature films brought from the United States and Europe, as well as other foreign contributions.
The Arrival of the Box
Inevitably, it was the arrival of television that has had the greatest impact. Israel’s first Prime Minister, David Ben-Gurion, had stubbornly resisted the introduction of television, seeing it as a negative influence on the young. He foresaw a nation of couch potatoes. However, even before Educational Television and Israel Television (ITV) were set up, in 1965 and 1968 respectively, many Israelis owned television sets in order to watch transmissions from neighboring countries.
For many years, television was as much a source of didacticism as entertainment. Educational Television broadcast in the daytime, transmitting programs related to school curricula and a careful selection of imported children’s entertainment. ITV’s evening schedule relied heavily on news, current affairs and documentaries, with only a limited number of imported films and serials.
Israel Television continued broadcasting in black and white until the early 1980s, long after most of the world had gone color. In fact, because ITV broadcasts were done with color equipment, a special appliance to convert color broadcasts to black and white was developed. (Later, this device was sold to other national TV companies around the world.) However, Israelis had a taste for color, and one scientist patented a machine that converted the black and white transmissions back into their original colors.
Israel Television dominated ratings despite competition from neighboring countries. This changed with the introduction of cable (late 1980s) and commercial (early 1990s) television. The cable stations and particularly the commercial television station proved that the public’s preferences were not as “high-brow” as ITV’s management always insisted. With a diet of game-shows, fast moving soaps and imported serials, commercial television has consistently outrated ITV. Moreover, such home-made serials as Ramat Aviv Gimmel and Lethal Money, which have also been sold overseas, have proven that Israelis, like other TV-watchers around the world, are interested in the everyday mundane problems of personal relationships, particularly when these take place among the rich and beautiful, as well as in the broader issues of war and peace.
The People of The Book
Israelis remain avid book readers despite the popularity of television. A recent Gallup Poll showed that while watching TV is the preferred leisure activity of 31 percent of Israelis, 21 percent would rather read a book. Israelis bought 14 million books a decade ago, but, after the introduction of cable and commercial TV, sales in 1996 totaled only 11 million books. Still, this figure means that book consumption per capita is on par with that of the world’s highest book consumers Scandinavia and Iceland. Four thousand new books are published in Israel each year, mainly in Hebrew but also in Arabic, Russian and English; this is the world’s second highest per capita output of new titles, after the People’s Republic of China. A large percentage of these books is sold during Hebrew Book Week in the early summer, when, studies show, 45 percent of Israelis visit book marts in 55 locations around the country.
Increasingly Israelis are also using computers in their everyday life. Nearly all Israeli schools have computer centers and most kindergartens have computers. Most offices and many homes also have computers, with surfing the Internet growing into a popular pastime, especially among the under-30’s. In fact, Israel has one of the highest rates of Internet users in the world as well as one of the highest per capita rates of website production. Communication by e-mail is rapidly becoming the norm for both commercial purposes and younger Israelis wishing to correspond with friends. The Prime Minister’s Office recently launched a campaign called “A Computer For Every Home” to provide computers at home for disadvantaged children.
For a small percentage of Israeli society, the ultra-orthodox sector, television and even radio are taboo. These communities see television, cinema and theater as undesirable influences. Leisure time in these communities is spent in visits with family and friends, study of Jewish sources, liturgical music concerts and traditional folk dances – the latter all segregated by sex.
The ultra-orthodox community has its own press and even its own radio station, to provide its members with news and entertainment according to their own world view. Israel’s modem orthodox community, on the other hand, belongs to both worlds, and has characteristics of both the secular and ultraorthodox communities in its leisure patterns.
Ironically, the Sabbath (Saturday), the day of rest, is the greatest dividing line between secular and religious Israelis. For observant Jews, the biblical injunction to rest on the Sabbath is taken literally. Thus, the Sabbath, which lasts from sunset on Friday until sunset on Saturday, is a day to attend synagogue prayers, learn Torah, and spend time with one’s family. Work is prohibited, including the use of electricity and travel by vehicle, except in matters of life and death.
For Israel’s secular majority, the Sabbath is the principal leisure day. Beaches, restaurants and cafes are packed, though most stores and shopping centers remain closed. Friday night is particularly busy for night clubs, discos and bars, though secular Israelis also devote much time to family get-togethers at home.
In contrast to most western countries, the shape of both the week and the year in Israel is distinctly Jewish. For many years, most Israelis worked a six-day week. During the 1980s a western-style two-day weekend was introduced, with public services and industries – but not schools, banks and retail businesses – closed on Fridays, the Muslim Sabbath, as well as on Saturday. Israeli nightlife is often more intense at the beginning of the weekend, on a Thursday night, while Friday is a day for shopping, putting bank affairs in order and cleaning the home.
Jewish festivals are also a unique feature of Israeli leisure culture. Secular Jews often spend days like Rosh Hashanah (New Year) and Shavuot (Pentecost) making trips in the countryside or enjoying other leisure activities, while the religious devote the major festivals to prayer, study and family meals. Two festivals have become collective national vacations: Succot (Tabernacles) and Pesach (Passover), which both have intermediary days during which the entire country seems to be on vacation. For the eight days of Succot and seven days of Pesach, all government offices, schools and many private businesses close up shop. Many Israelis travel abroad, while others vacation at home. A large proportion of those who stay at home spend their time with family and friends in the country’s many national parks, enjoying natural vistas, bathing in pools, lakes and the sea, and consuming barbecuegrilled foods. This is the time for major cultural festivals, such as the Acco Fringe Theater Festival and the Haifa International Film Festival , both on Succot.
From Austerity to Prosperity
The last decade’s economic growth has put more disposable income into the pockets of the average Israeli family. One striking result is that, unlike in the state’s early years, Israelis are now well traveled – two and a half million Israelis traveled abroad in 1996. When overseas vacations first came within the reach of Israeli families in the late 70s and early 80s, Western Europe and North America were the preferred destinations. Egypt was popular after the peace treaty. Following the fall of the Berlin wall, exploring one’s Eastern European roots in Prague, Budapest and Warsaw was fashionable. Cheap package vacations in Turkey and Greece have been the rage in the past ten years while the more adventurous explore India, China, Thailand and Kenya. Jordan and particularly Petra have been descended upon since the 1994 peace treaty with Jordan, while Sinai has remained a favorite even after it was returned to Egypt in 1982. At the same time it is customary for Israeli youngsters to “backpack” across more exotic locations in Latin America and South-East Asia following their three years of compulsory army service.
Major tourist industries have also sprung up around the country, especially in the Galilee, at the Dead Sea and in Eilat. Hotels once relied on foreign tourism to turn a profit; now it is often Israelis who generate more income. The Galilee has enjoyed a proliferation of “tzimmerim” – rural guest houses, often an extension of people’s homes.
These provide a less expensive way of vacationing in the northern countryside, and many families take advantage of this relatively new opportunity. Field trips in the wadis of the Negev and the mountains and valleys of the Galilee – organized by the Society for the Protection of Nature, community centers and other bodies – have been a national pursuit for years. The connection of these trips with archeology, always a popular interest, is indispensable, with hikers visiting the rich variety of historical sites around the country.
Recent years have also provided a variety of modern leisure activities for the young and the young at heart. Horseriding and theme parks, water parks and zoos have sprung up throughout the country. Kibbutzim and moshavim, with available land far from the maddening crowds, are a natural environment for such leisure businesses. Today, for example, one can hire a kayak, a catamaran or an inner tire tube from one of the kibbutzim along the Jordan River in order to float down the river.
In the cities a plethora of shopping malls have been constructed. The malls, like those around the world, have chain stores, fast food outlets, multi-theater cinema complexes and amusement arcades as well as huge parking lots outside. But unlike elsewhere, shopping malls have not killed the inner city shopping centers, which have been able to match the malls by transforming busy city streets into pedestrian shopping marts.
Community centers offer a diverse range of afternoon and evening extra-curricular activities for all ages, while many youngsters belong to youth movements which sponsor a wide range of events.
In Israel, where warm weather lasts many months, spending time at the beach remains a popular leisure activity. Along the shoreline, marinas for private boats have been constructed.
Other water sports, such as water skiing and windsurfing, have also become popular. In fact, one of the three Olympic medals ever won by Israelis was awarded to a windsurfer.
Sports organizations attract tens of thousands of members to participate in sports ranging from soccer and basketball to gymnastics, swimming, athletics, boxing, volleyball and handball. Many more enjoy spectator sports, especially soccer and basketball.
Like so much in Israel, sport has historically been mixed with politics. Hapoel, involved in all sports, is associated with the Labor party and the Histadrut Federation of Labor. Betar sports clubs are associated with the Herut faction of the Likud, while Elitzur, the religious sports movement, is associated with the National Religious Party. The largest sports association in Israel is the non-affiliated Maccabi, originally set up in tandem with the world Maccabi movement.
The most popular Israeli sports, in terms of both participation and viewing, are soccer and basketball. In soccer, Israel qualified for the World Cup finals in 1970 in Mexico and since 1993 has been competing in the major European competitions. Most Israelis are armchair soccer fans, with only 30,000 supporters actually going to all the first division games each week. But matches broadcast live on television can attract huge audiences – perhaps 40 percent of all Israeli viewers. In addition to broadcasts of local sports, there are three channels broadcasting a variety of international sports events on cable television. Israel’s basketball achievements have been much more impressive: in 1977 and 1981 Maccabi Tel Aviv won the European Club Championship, while in 1979 Israel finished as runner-up to the Soviet Union in the European National Championship. In addition to local basketball, Israeli spectators tend to follow the NBA on television.
Tennis is also a popular participation and spectator sport, and the nationwide network of Israel Tennis Centers, set up in the 1970s, runs a unique program to bring the sport to thousands of teenagers, many of them from disadvantaged homes. Through the sport, such concepts as discipline and etiquette are taught. The program has also produced world class players like Amos Mansdorf, who at his peak in the 1980s was ranked 19th on the ATP ratings.
An Affluent Society
Like most aspects of Israeli life, leisure activity is a cause for controversy – whether because veteran Israelis find the younger generation “spoiled” by recent affluence, or due to conflicting opinions about the moral and cultural effect of western culture on Israel’s Jewish heritage.
Nonetheless, the variety of leisure patterns found in Israel reflect many of the country’s important characteristics, such as the great diversity of lifestyles, beliefs and habits, and the combination of a unique and ancient heritage with centuries-old customs and a lively modern lifestyle.