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September 18, 2005 - Milk, Honey, Cash and Credit Card

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Sylvain Ubersfeld

Tel-Aviv - September 15, 2005


I am an organized shopper. Living alone in the three-bedroom apartment supplied by my generous employer, I had chosen long ago to limit my shopping to the essentials - local products that can be found at the Hypernetto, the Russian operated supermarket located along the Ramat Aviv Kanion (In Hebrew, a Kanion is necessarily "grand" and is the equivalent of the American "mall").


Whenever faced with a choice my preference always go towards the simple and most natural looking items, ranging from fruit and vegetables to toilet paper, weird or unknown brands of toothpaste like "Orbitol," or "Elit" ground Turkish coffee that comes in a cylindrical tin box which can be used, when empty, to store all kind of small items.  Because of this, my wife calls me a cheap bastard, but when shopping I am definitely facing this very half of myself which is having difficulties parting with cash when it comes to shop for food, household supplies, or any other non-vital items.  Shopping is not my favorite activity.  It has to be precise, clean, fast, like an act of surgery. The ultimate goal is simple: to leave the place with only what I wanted to buy, at the cheapest rate.  But when time comes time to go through the cashier's line, I then realize that the shopping habits of my Israeli neighbors are definitely different from mine.


The Israeli shopper does not buy "local" - he buys "foreign."  Instead of buying a four-pack of yoghurt produced in Israel with Israeli milk provided historically by "ha Shem" (God) and the help of Israeli cows (chewing relentlessly on the grass from Galil ,the Northern area of Israel, known for its pastoral life), the Israeli shopper will rather spend over twice the money for the imported equivalent under the false pretense that the product is better! 


When it comes to buying sundries, the Israeli shopper will certainly buy foreign, imported brands whose seductive packaging will have attracted the eye while at the same time distracting the owner of the wallet.  From a fairly accurate survey, I can safely say that, in fact, three fifths of each supermarket is dedicated to foreign imports, which obviously pleases the forgiving consumer whose government imposes outrageously high taxes on every non-Israeli product ranging from soap bars to computers, beers to canned goods.  Shopping at Hypernetto is an experience!  The US-produced cans of Green Giant corn line upon the shelf close to their Israeli equivalent, McCormick spices are neighbor to the local brand, and the fullest shelves are the one carrying local products, cheaper but local, hence not interesting to our "status shoppers"


Israelis have a problem of identity.  This translates, amongst other things, in their shopping habits and in their pursuit of a lifestyle that is a curious composite of European and American culture, to which some basic elements are however missing.  Service to customers is far below any European standards, urgent repairs can always wait until the next day, or the next week, problems are "fixed" but not "solved" and there is a great suspicion on anyone coming from abroad trying to open a bank account, get connected to the electricity company, or sign up for a phone line.


Israelis want to be Israelis but at the same time appear to be afraid of being themselves.  And if they want to be themselves, they do just that in the intimacy of their own family, at least once a week for the wonderful family dinner on Shabbat (the day of rest, as instructed by Moses on request from "ha Shem").


But let's return to Hyperneto…  Israelis believe that wherever they shop, they own the place - and this of course entitles them to onsite sampling and tasting of a wide range of commodities: nuts, dried figs, almonds, apricot paste, grapes, olives and delicious Russian gherkins openly displayed in a wooden drum.  Discretely but surely enough, the old woman, the young soldier, the student - each of them passing in front of the different and delicious commodities - will grab a handful before continuing they shopping mission.  Educated by the vision of the vultures satisfying their need for dried fruit, I have recently joined in and have adjusted my shopping trip to meal times in order to save additional shekels although I must admit I feel shameful at picking up local habits!


Israelis shop in large quantities.  Would it be an anti-Semitic statement to say that some have a ghetto mentality ?


If my grandparents (eradicated from the surface of the earth in Krakow during spring 1942 by decision of the Wansee conference) could shop today in Tel-Aviv after having known the starvation of  war days behind wall in Poland, would they also fill up their trolley up to the brim by fear of starvation?  Or is it rather the generous heart beating in each and every Jewish mother that controls the mind, the hands, the eyes and the wallet anytime an Israeli mum goes through the electric doors and enters a supermarket?  But one thing is for sure: when passing through the cashier's line, the question asked to customer will always be the same: Cash or Credit … matching invariably the same answer: credit, installments please!  True enough, the Israeli shopper lives on credit.  This is a tradition, transmitted from mother to daughter, for the great benefit of the banking system.


Israeli shoppers, patrons, student and even the unexpected "schnorrer" (a professional beggar omnipresent in the Yiddish Culture) have been known for years to live above their means.


When questioning different shoppers as to their justification for this suicidal financial approach I received from them the same philosophical statement: "Who knows what will tomorrow be made of - let's enjoy life today and let the banks foot the tab if I die!"


The Israeli market quickly adapted to this attitude and credit cards of all kinds have flourished, banks have spread up like mushrooms, and the "kanion" are full with happy, spending customers looking to escape from the grim economic landscape.  Of course like everywhere in the world there are people with money - I have seen them in restaurants, wearing the latest fashion from Paris, London or Amsterdam.  I have seen their beautiful villas in Herzlia (three miles north of Tel Aviv) or in  Savyon (the top of the top neighborhood for Tel Avivians).  I have seen the Boeing 737 long-range in VIP configuration used by the heir of Bank Hapoalim (the worker's bank) whose father built his fortune of the tears and sweat of the Israeli working class.  I have seen all the small private jet, complete with a "mezzouzah" by the entry door (*), and I know that when Israelis are rich , they are VERY rich and can certainly afford to shop at Hypernetto on credit, with or without installments.


But a country of Milk and Honey they say?  All depends who you are, where you were born, and how life has served your plate!  All depends also what is your family name, when you made "Aliyah" (**).  There are people in Israel who do not eat regularly, short of being able to buy food; there are undernourished children who are depending on privately operated soup kitchen advertising on the radio in order to collect funds; there are pensioners who block the lines at the cashiers' of Hypernetto, redeeming food coupons.  Yes, in Israel too there are people who don't go to fancy restaurants, nor wonderful and cozy bars – immigrants who cannot adapt to the culture, beaten wives who decided to leave their brutal husband and have difficulties to make ends meet.  And often enough, when going to work in the morning and passing through my quiet (and fancy) neighborhood of Ramat Aviv, I cannot stop having a thought for these people as indeed, even if they probably receive milk from time to time, I wonder If they will ever have a taste of the honey.




(*) Mezzouzah: a small and narrow box containing some selected paragraphs of the Jewish Scriptures, usually positioned on the doorframe of every single house, reminding people of God's existence and commands.


(**) Aliyah: For a Jew, the action of immigrating from abroad to Israel




Copyright 2005 – Sylvain Ubersfeld




Copyright 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006 - Alan M. Pavlik
The inclusion of any text from others is quotation
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