September 7, 2013
Why ‘Thank you’ is an insult in the land of apples and honey
I have this super-American habit I'm trying to shake, because it's turning me into a tick and an outsider in this hot, brutal city: I say "thank you" too much.
Around the Rosh Hashanah table last week, I was at my worst. I pulled a TY every time another dish came out of the oven; every time I was passed a condiment or soda bottle; every time some cousin showed me a gnarly IDF video on his cellphone. (We were taken in from Tel Aviv's lonely heat by my boyfriend's far-distant relatives, who live a few kilometers from the West Bank at the skinniest point in northern Israel — because on Rosh Hashanah, it's no Jew, cat or shiksa left behind.)
It was only after we left, after the final "THANK YOU!!!", that a hindsight of my grinding American politeness socked me 'tween the eyes. My hosts didn't want another "thank you" — they wanted me to pass out on the couch for an eggplant-casserole nap with an apple-honey stomachache.
We have this dance we do back home, this exchange of pleasantries so overused they become white noise. "Please" and "thank you" are like layers of potpourri between each real question or request — and any over-ask or overstay becomes somehow justified, the thicker and sweeter the layers.
Not so in Israel, where the tight-knit and sometimes smothering Jewish community is based on unspoken IOUs. No need to say "thank you" after dinner, because you know good and well that you'll soon repay with a dinner party of your own, a job connect, a friend-of-a-friend discount or a ride to the airport. Even between strangers, there is an eternal game of "pay it forward" playing out on the streets of Tel Aviv. I once stooped over and helped a liquor-store girl pick up an entire box of spilled recyclings. She barely even looked at me afterward — just nodded in wordless understanding that two humans walking the same land, two sisters on the same neighborhood watch, should pick up each other's recyclings when they spill. Pleasantries, in moments like these, are an insult.
I used to absentmindedly thank my Israeli taxi drivers some three times over the course of the journey — until I noticed the twist of disgust on their faces in response. How the hell did I expect them to reply to this shameful show of gratitude, completely out of place in their throttling storefront, where the only language is exchange-of-services?
If you don't get into a shouting match with your Israeli taxi driver about the correct route to take, there is no respect. Not opening your door into oncoming traffic? That's the only "thank you" he won't spit onto the concrete while peeling away.
In fact, I would like to pay momentary tribute to this special look that Israelis get when assaulted with an American "thank you." There is an averting of the pupils, as if searching for another Israeli soul with which to share their pain — and what pain! The nostrils flare slightly, the teeth clench and the lips part without purpose, for there is no phrase in existence that can match the emptiness of what I've just lobbed at them. An awkward silence follows, with the sole purpose of making me sit with my offense. Sometimes, if I'm lucky, they'll take pity on me and throw me a half-affectionate "So American!" — like, you can't help it if you're a void of a person whose mother didn't drown you in tough love and shakshouka, and whose Arab brothers haven't shown you the meaning of life and survival.
And still, the spineless American in me too often can’t resist. Every email I write includes at least two TYs, sometimes three or four. In reply, I've even been known to open with the hilariously insecure: "Thank you for your response." The comebacks I get from Israelis make me look even more ridiculous: strings of uncapitalized, unfinished, misspelled sentences with just enough effort behind them to get the necessary information across. They read like a motherly eye-roll or slap on the cheek. As if to say: Wake up, you big tick — there will be no love or grammar between us until you're passed out on the couch with an apple-honey stomachache.
It took everything I had not to thank the scowling Mizrahi chick who blasted Selena Gomez on her Android the whole sherut ride back to Tel Aviv from Rosh Hashanah dinner. Instead I scowled back, grinded my seat in gratitude and threw a five-shekel piece to the next bum I saw. He just nodded, kind of annoyed I hadn’t thrown him a 10.