LIVING IN ISRAEL
Fast-paced, cultured, spiritual, serene, fun. There are countless different ways to describe life in Israel, where daily life and culture are as diverse as its citizens. A country of immigrants, Israel's population has grown more than eight-fold since its founding in 1948. Today, over 7 million inhabitants embrace a mixture of people with varied ethnic backgrounds, lifestyles, religions, cultures and traditions. Despite the diversity of nationalities, which include people from every corner of the world, a typical Israeli character type has emerged that is often compared to the national fruit, the prickly pear,-"sabra" – hard and thorny on the outside, but soft and sweet inside.
Jerusalem, Israel's capital (population ~750,000), stands at the center of the Jewish people’s national and spiritual life. One of the world's holiest cities, it is a flourishing, vibrant metropolis, the seat of the government and Israel’s largest municipality.
Tel Aviv-Yafo (population ~400,000), which was founded in 1909 as the first Jewish city in modern times, is today the center of the country’s commercial, financial and cultural life.
Haifa (population ~270,000), a coastal town established in ancient times, is a major Mediterranean port and the industrial and commercial center of northern Israel.
Be’er Sheva (population ~200,000), named in the Bible as an encampment of the
patriarch, Abraham, is today the largest urban center in the south. It provides administrative, economic, health, education and cultural services for the entire southern region.
Most Israelis work a five to six day workweek from about 8 or 9 in the morning to 5 or 6 in the evening; children go to school six days a week, with Friday being a shorter day. Communities and neighborhoods are generally established around a local commercial center. During the late afternoon, it is not uncommon to bump into friends or neighbors enjoying a cup of cappuccino or espresso at the local cafe, while their children play in the nearby park. Physically active, Israelis love sports and can often be seen working out in many of the up-scale gyms around the country, jogging along the beach, speedwalking on the sidewalk or playing pick-up basketball at the neighbourhood court. Children are also encouraged to take part in a great variety of activities after school, including sports, martial arts, dance and many more.
Israelis enjoy their leisure and spend the weekends and holidays taking pleasure in time spent with family and friends, in shops, cafes, restaurants, beaches and parks around the country.
The lifestyle in Israel is very much "Mediterranean" with bars, cafes and restaurants open until late into the night, typified by sprawling crowds and outdoor seating on sidewalks and terraces. Being a family-minded people, Israelis often bring their children to eat out in restaurants (most restaurants happily accommodate young diners) .
For relaxation, Israelis love the beach, and thanks to the mild climate the seaside can be enjoyed almost all year round. Everything from swimming, surfing, lounging, eating or playing "matkot" (a game of hitting a ball back and forth using paddles) can be found on Israel's beaches around the country. Most beaches in Israel are public and are served by a variety of bars, restaurants and hotels.
Israelis are ardent sports fans and are especially passionate about their local soccer and basketball teams, whose games are heavily attended. When relaxing indoors, Israelis enjoy watching local cinema and international films with subtitles. At home, cable or satellite TV is available with channels from around the world including pay per view movie channels and sports channels. Broadband Internet access is widely available and many cafes offer wireless Internet access. Given the country's prowess in the ICT industry, Israeli society is one of the most penetrated by cell phones and a variety of other electronic gadgets.
The Jewish holidays provide a platform for some traditional Israeli festivities, including outdoor barbequing or "mangal" on Israeli Independence Day, eating and sleeping in huts on the Sukkot holiday, and enjoying traditional foods from the Jewish diaspora's wide cuisine, covering everything from the spongy Ethiopian "injera" bread to Moroccan "sfenj" to Eastern-European "kreplach," dumplings akin to those found further east. During the Islamic month of Ramadan the Iftar evening meal breaking the fast and the sweet foods on Id-ul-Fitr including k'ak al-tamar, a sweet meat served with coffee, add to the country's scrumptious offering. Traditional Armenian Christmas foods, though meatless, include a wide variety of dried and fresh fruits, cheeses, oil cured olives, nuts and seeds. There are also many fish, whole grain, and vegetable dishes, served with breads like cheoreg or peda, and topped off with delicate Paklavas, Boeregs and Kurabia, as well as a special Christmas porridge known as Anushabour. It's never a holiday without food in Israel, and the Israeli cuisine is especially rich due to the many ethnic contributions that make up the Israeli mosaic.
Much of Israeli culture evolves around food and it is not an understatement to say that Israelis love to eat. As the majority of Israelis travel the world after their mandatory army service, they are exposed to a wide variety of tastes and cultures; consequentially a wide range of notable international restaurants have found a willing audience in Israel, offering cuisines from Continental to Asian, and European to South American. In fact, France's legendary Gault-Millau food critics consider Israel one of the world's major food destinations.
But eating well in Israel is not just about fancy restaurants. Although most of the international fast-food franchises are present in Israel, local fast food is far more interesting and nutritious. Some of the most popular fast foods, often eaten while walking along the boulevards, are falafel, a sandwich of fried chickpeas and herbs, served with salad in a pita bread, and shwarma, a sandwich-like wrap usually composed of shaved lamb, goat, chicken, turkey, beef, or a mixture of meats served with salad in a pita or laffah bread. Hummus, which has taken on a global appeal, is a blend of chickpeas, sesame-seed paste, lemon juice and olive oil, and is best scooped up with warm bread or pita. Desserts include halwa, kanafeh, baklava, shebakia and other sweet Middle Eastern treats. An Israeli breakfast can be a sumptuous affair, consisting of a wide variety of cheeses, fresh breads and salads. This is best enjoyed at local cafes and restaurants on a Friday morning. For service charges a 10%-15% tip is recommended.
As Israel's wine industry has slowly grown to establish itself among the leaders of the world, Israelis have also developed a taste for good wines. Though winemaking in Israel dates back to biblical times, it all but ceased when Muslim leaders banned alcohol, and only resumed after 1882, when French philanthropist Baron Edmond de Rothschild began underwriting agricultural settlements in the region with an emphasis on wine growing. Nowadays, many of Israel's high-quality wines are produced in the Galilee and the Golan, which is ideal because of its volcanic soil, cool climate, altitudes, and water available through drip irrigation systems.
In Israel, cultural expression through the arts is as varied as the people themselves, with literature, theater, concerts, radio and television programming, live entertainment, museums and galleries covering every interest and taste. Israel has more museums per capita than any other country, as well as an international standard Opera Company, The New Israeli Opera, four symphony orchestras, including the Israel Philharmonic, and dozens of theater, dance, chamber music and contemporary music companies.
Israel's club scene is also vibrant, particularly in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, and is part of the Ibiza-Amsterdam-London scene, drawing DJ's and club fans from the U.S. and Europe to all-night parties.
Traveling in Israel
It may be a tiny country but Israel offers everything from ski slopes on the Hermon in the north to deep sea diving in Eilat in the south. With landscapes varying from lush forests and waterfalls for keen hikers to arid deserts and sand dunes for jeep treks, as well as miles and miles of beaches along the entire coastal plain, there is a plethora of things to see and do. With total driving time of about seven hours from the northern tip to the southern tip of the country, it is no surprise that Israelis love to load up the car for short family vacations. When spending weekends away, Israelis generally go camping or stay at small, affordable guest houses and B&Bs known as "zimmerim". Public bus and train service travels all around the country and is very affordable. To get to the few places public transportation might not reach, people commonly take cabs or rent bikes.
Israelis love to shop, and as seasoned travelers around the world, they have developed a sophisticated and discerning taste for everything from clothes and food to household goods and technological gadgets.
Most international brand labels can be found here as well as some impressive local brands. For those wanting to buy fresh produce, while enjoying a good dose of Israeli culture and flavor, the best locations are local open markets known as "shouks" found in most cities throughout the country. And to purchase one of the many creative hand made dresses or pieces of artistic jewelry that are available, a visit to the many outdoor malls is an event in itself.
But for the most part, Israelis will be found shopping in malls. In fact, most cities boast more than one gigantic shopping mall. A good range of high quality local fashion labels, as well as the well-known international names, are found here. Malls are usually open from 10:00am to 10:00pm Sunday-Thursday and until 2:00 or 3:00pm on Fridays. Most are closed on Saturdays and re-open when the Sabbath ends at sundown. Some street stores are open Sunday-Thursday 9:00 or 10:00 am to 1:00pm and 4:00 to 7:00pm while some remain open the whole day from 10:00am-7:00pm, and on Fridays from 8:00am to 2:00 pm. Shops in Muslim areas are generally open Saturday-Thursday and are closed on Friday.
System of Government
Israel is a parliamentary democracy with legislative, executive and judicial branches. The head of the state is the President, whose duties are mostly ceremonial and formal. His office symbolizes the unity and sovereignty of the state. The Knesset, Israel’s legislative authority, is a 120-member parliament which operates in plenary session and through 15 standing committees. Its members are elected every four years in universal nationwide elections. Some members of the parliament serve as Ministers and are charged with administering internal and foreign affairs. The Cabinet of Ministers is responsible to the Knesset and is headed by the Prime Minister. At the local level, the law recognizes three types of local government, defined by the size of the population, including some 70 urban municipalities with a population exceeding 20,000 residents, about 140 urban or rural municipalities comprising between 2,000 and 20,000 people, and over 50 bi-level municipalities that govern multiple rural communities located in relative geographic vicinity, with less than 2000 inhabitants each. The local authority provides its residents with a wide range of services, and develops its physical infrastructure, road system, water supply, refuse collection and disposal system, sewage system, and parks. Local authorities are headed by councils whose members are elected on a five year basis according to the proportional representation of their political parties. Mayors (including the chairpersons of local and regional councils) are elected directly by the voters.
The social service system is based on legislation which provides for workers’ protection and a broad range of national and community services.
The National Insurance Institute provides all permanent residents (including non-citizens) with a broad range of benefits, including unemployment insurance, old-age pensions, maternity grants and allowances, child allowances, income support payments and more.
Israel is a country that prides itself on the availability of excellent and affordable medical care for all its inhabitants. The country's high standards of health services, top-quality medical resources and research, modern hospital facilities and an impressive ratio of physicians and specialists to population are reflected in Israel's low infant mortality rate (5.3 per 1,000 live births) and long life expectancy (80.73 years for women, 78.62 for men), the 10th highest in the world. Health care for all, from infancy to old age, is ensured by law and the national expenditure on health compares favorably with that of other developed countries.
The National Health Insurance Law provides for a standardized basket of medical services, including hospitalization, for all residents of Israel. All medical services are supplied by the country’s four health care funds: Kupat Holim Clalit, Kupat Holim Maccabbi, Kupat Holim Meuhedet and Kupat Holim Leumit. Receipt of health services is contingent upon registration with one of the health care funds.
The school year in Israel begins on or about September 1st and ends on June 30th. School attendance is mandatory from age 5 to 16, though most students complete 12 years of schooling. Under the Free Education Law, the government network of public schools is tuition free through to the end of the 12th grade. In addition, religious schools "yeshivot" are partially subsidized while private and international schools charge full tuition.
Israel enjoys one of the highest ratios of university degrees to population and Israeli universities are included in the European Top 100. A wide range of programs is available in the sciences and humanities, at Israel's eight universities, granting Bachelors, Masters and Post Doctoral degrees. Smaller colleges provide academic courses and specialized training in teaching, music, art, design and physical education. Many of the universities and colleges offer courses and degree programs in English.
The official work week in Israel is 42 hours. Most businesses operate from Sunday through Thursday, though some also work half a day on Friday. Government offices are closed on Friday.
On Saturday, which coincides with Shabbat, the seventh day of the Jewish week and a day of rest in Judaism, all offices and most Israeli shops are closed. Places of entertainment, however, such as movie theaters and clubs, generally remain open, while coffee shops, and especially restaurants and bars along the beach are full of lively crowds.
Hours vary, but banks are generally open Sunday-Thursday 8:30 am to 1:00 pm, and on Mondays and Thursdays from 4 pm to 6 pm. On Friday, they open in the morning only, usually closing at noon.
Israel's currency is the shekel (IS), also called the new shekel (NIS). Each shekel is divided into 100 agorot. $1= approximately 3.8 shekels and 1 Euro= approximately 5.4 shekels (July 2009). Money can be exchanged at all banks, post offices and money exchange bureaus.
The majority of post offices are open from Sunday-Friday between 8:30am–12:30pm, with late afternoon hours (4:00pm–6:00pm), every day except Wednesdays and Fridays.
Israel has an extensive public transportation network, with an expanding railway and a national bus system operating both local transit services and long-distance routes throughout the country. The train, which is popular with commuters, serves primarily the densely populated coastal plain but reaches as far north as Nahariya, only 6 miles down the coast from Israel's border with Lebanon, and as far south and inland as Beer Sheva. Taxi service is reasonably priced and widely-used.
Israel's climate is characterized by mild temperatures and much sunshine, perfect for enjoying outdoor activities all year round. There is only occasional rain between November and April and total annual rainfall ranges from 20-30 inches (50-70 cm.) in the north to about an inch (2.5 cm.) in the far south. The weather conditions vary around the country with hot summers and mild winters on the coastal plain; dry, warm summers and cooler winters in the hill regions; and semi-arid conditions, with warm days and cool nights in the south.