Acceptance or resignation Both parents and children resign themselves to a quality, rather than quantity relationship. "Not everybody reaches that stage", Raz points out.
The problems of separation are exacerbated at certain points. "When you’re going through Stage 2 these feelings haunt you even more," says Raz. "You say to youself: ‘Not only am I miserable but I’ve made my family miserable as well’. These problems have to be worked through and its better to recognize them than ignore them".
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Learning Hebrew Isn’t Easy
People from western countries, who are used to expressing themselves very well and being understood, can get fed up with sounding like an precocious five-year-old, rather than an adult. "Hebrew is a very big deterrent. Speaking can be humiliating and raises issues of self image. This is an error, because language is not a sign of intelligence. North Americans in particular, who are not used to speaking second languages, feel marginalized. They don’t speak up in public. Some people say they’ve developed language blocks, but there is no such thing".
What does prevent people from learning is "a combination of putting pressure on yourself, associating language with self esteem and a sense of hopelessness". It takes between 3 to 7 years to learn Hebrew, says Raz, "which is not what they tell you".
The trick, says Raz, is having a sense of humor. "Olim have to be willing to sound like children. They can’t be perfectionists. If they’re not willing to make mistakes, they will have a harder time".
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There are things you can do to help yourself become bi-cultural, says Raz, "You need to understand that Israelis have networks. Although things have changed, this is still a country largely based on connections, proteczia, who you know. olim need to able to reach out and talk to people, anyone, people in line at the post office - you never know who has a friend who has an apartment or a job available - the beauty of this country is the people. Everyone has a story if you are willing to listen".
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Learning to Cope
Olim need to do is develop coping skills or ways to get things done. Says Raz: "In the US, for example, Jews have adopted the WASP culture, which says 'don’t get out of control, be reserved, and if you’re angry, lower the tone of your voice, speak slowly, use understatement'. In Israel you raise your voice." Shouting when you’re not angry is something olim might have to learn.
When it comes to bureaucracy, "if you’re friendly and polite, you can, for the most part get what you need done. In Israel there are all sorts of other ways: raising your voice, flirting, asking to speak to the manager, crying, making jokes, speaking English only". The rule of thumb: An oleh’s gotta do what an oleh’s gotta do.
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The issues of privacy and personal space are all different in Israel, says Raz, and shouldn’t be stereotype negatively too quickly. "Israelis talk about money, rents and salaries; Americans don’t. They visit their parents every Sabbath; in the US you might see your parents twice a year. They take their cell phones on vacation; Americans leave them at home. There are millions of examples but the point is, you only start to realize them when you come to live here. When they happen, instead of saying: 'This would never happen in the US', be a sort of mini-sociologist and say: ‘What does this mean’"?
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Returning Israelis and Re-entry Shock
According to Lucy Shahar, co-author (with David Kurz) of the book Border Crossings : American Interactions With Israelis (Intercultural Press) the problems encountered by Israelis re-entering Israeli society after being away is as serious as any other form of culture shock. It’s often not recognized as such either by those suffering the symptoms, or those around them.
The model of re-entry shock, Shahar says, "has the same curve as culture shock: the initial feeling of euphoria, the feeling you’ve returned home, people speaking your language, the smells and tastes are familiar, everything is wonderful. That lasts for a short period of time (several weeks to two months) before the second stage".
Shock usually sets in "after that you’re hit by a situation where your behavior gets an unexpected response. Let’s say you’ve been in North America. Your body language is more reserved, you’re not used to bureaucracy, you’re used to a certain level of professional behavior. All of a sudden the things you were happy to return to - the warmth and spontaneous behavior - start driving you crazy". In many cases, Shahar says "you spend a lot of time crying, or feeling angry and frustrated.
At this stage, the person may also "realize they’re not the same person they were when they left Israel. Let’s say you enter a meeting and it seems disorganized. Or, you’re working on a team and it seems no one is listening to the team leader".
"The most important difference between re-entry and culture shock, is the loneliness of re-entry. No one understands what you’ve been through. They’re interested, but only to a limited extent".
There may also be physical discomforts, such as returning to a sublet apartment and finding it a mess, or simply smaller than remembered. "You may come back to your job and find your chair is literally not there". In short: you don’t function as an Israeli as well as you did before you left. Your norms and behavior codes have changed".
Stage three is a period of partial adjustment to the return. "Things become easier," says Shahar. "You regain your sense of humor. You find your place with old friends, or you make new friends - maybe other ex-ex-pats - and you find a way to blend the best of both cultures".
The fourth step, adjustment, is a theoretical ideal. Explains Shahar: "Any time there’s a transition you go through a culture shock, whether it’s going from being single to married, moving from Connecticut to Texas, etc".
What returning Israelis (as compared with olim) have going for them is the strength of family, which can ease the strain. "There’s a collective society here," says Shahar. "The group strongly supports people when they return, even if they’ve been away a long time".
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Severe problems can erupt among couples where one spouse is Israeli and the other one isn’t. "If the spouse hasn’t made a real process of commitment to aliya , and if the non-Israeli spouse is unhappy, then a victim/aggressor relationship can arise". The non-Israeli spouse "has to go through the decision making process, and decide if he/she can really live here. The non-Israeli must re-evaluate and accept responsibility for his/her decision". Additionally, both partners have to be willing to re-evaluate their decision after a certain period of time, and the Israeli spouse may have to accept leaving Israel, if it comes to that.
Another issue arises in cases where the Israeli partner is a woman, says Raz. "She becomes the empowered one, his male ego may be wounded. They need to understand she is no longer the dependent one, as she was abroad".
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In the case of very young children, says Raz, "culture shock is a reflection of how the parents are doing. If one or both parents are depressed, the kids will reflect that".
"Adolescent olim do terribly here and many of them do not adjust. Adolescence is a hard time anyway, when many kids get their sense of identity from the peer group". If put in a situation where they have no peer group, adolescents suffer. "This is an age that needs stability. I wouldn’t go on sabbatical or on shlichut with adolescents either".
The situation is less grim for those adolescents who speak Hebrew, or are somewhat familiar with Israeli culture. And while it’s hard for returning Israeli children to find their old friends are hanging out with other kids, once they re-enter their hevre (social group), they usually adjust rapidly.
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Business Culture Shock
In "Border Crossings", authors Shahar and Kurtz give an example of the difference between Israel and North American culture called the coloring book metaphor. In short: North Americans stay within the lines. Israelis color outside the lines. "In metaphorical terms", says Shahar, "the lines of the North American coloring book are clear, while the lines in the Israeli coloring books are fuzzy to begin with and are therefore easier to cross, or they are clearly defined but regarded as challenge [to cross]."
As expressed in the workplace, it means "the lines between managers and subordinates are blurred. There is a casual attitude towards rules and regulations. Plans are meant to be changed".
A lot of the things that bother olim will also bother returning Israelis who have worked in the North American corporate culture, Shahar points out. ‘The lines between the social, personal, and professional selves are also blurred. In the US, you put on a professional demeanor when you go to work. In Israel, this is regarded as extremely false. The style of thinking, problem solving, and improvisation is also different. North Americans look on improvisation as risk taking. Israelis like to push that envelope".
Shahar and Kurz define "culture", in part, as "tendencies that are encouraged or discouraged by a society". In North America, self-control and restraint gets rewards. "This emphasis of self-control, which is adopted from the British, is very difficult for a lot of Israelis. Not when it comes to repressing deep emotions but when expressing anger, or dissatisfaction. The Israel ethos of rosh gadol - literally, "big head", meaning taking an interest outside your limited sphere - may be perceived as an intrusion on the part of North Americans".
The literal translation of a word like "plan" or "informal" isn’t enough, says Shahar. "Americans constantly feel Israelis aren’t sticking to agreements but [they must] understand the Israeli image of plan is different. You have to look at cultural meanings of a word. For example, "individualism" in Israel means not only ‘the master of one’s own fate’ but ‘no one is going to tell me what do’!. The social distance and respect for authority reflected in the French language - by vous and tu, for instance - doesn’t exist in Hebrew".
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Adjusting, or re-adjusting, to a culture doesn’t happen quickly and those who come from North America have a big problem with ambivalence, because it’s nice over there.
According to Nomi Raz, an Israeli survey has shown the profile of the most successful oleh isn’t necessarily the one with the best Hebrew, but "the one with a sense of humor and adventure, possessing flexibility and the ability to form intimate relations. In addition, those successful olim have a philosophical reason for being here, so when the going gets rough you can say, ‘its worthwhile’".
Returning Israelis generally feel ambivalent - and guilty - about having left Israel at all. Lucy Shahar cites a Canadian study of two expatriate groups which showed Israeli expatriates, as compared with Japanese-Canadians, never view their host country as home - even if they make the decision to stay there.
Having made the decision to come to Israel, says Raz, "you have to make a commitment and try to make it work for you. You can always go back there, but you’ll never have these years of your life back, so you should allow yourself to fully be here".
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AACI Comprehensive Psychological Service
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Lucy Shahar and David Kurz
Coming Home /
Taxes and Tariffs /
Schools, Health Funds and the IDF /
Guide to Culture Shock /
The "Globes" Hot List for Returning Israelis and New Olim