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Wednesday, May 12, 2004

Familiarity breeds…relief

I used to put a lot of stock in the adage 'familiarity breeds contempt'. Like I said…'used to'.

To illustrate my point; back in the old country, when I’d notice a police car behind me on the highway, my heart would start to pound and I would obsessively check my speed, put my hands at '10 & 2', and basically think good clean, legal thoughts. I’m not nearly old enough to have developed that WWII-era 'show me your papers' association with the police, but I don’t think I am the only law-abiding American that feels something closer to fear than to joy when in close proximity to them. More importantly, I don’t think that police officers in the U.S. particularly mind the reaction their presence evokes.

In contrast, here in Israel I’ve made the acquaintance of several policemen/women. Many of them live in our community, and seeing them in the synagogue, the grocery store or at parent/teacher night has certainly provided a certain level of familiarity.

This is not to imply that they wouldn’t give me a ticket if I were speeding (they would), or that they don’t have the same powers held by their American counterparts (if anything, they have more). The difference seems to be that the deliberate ‘distance’ (what one might call ‘unfamiliarity’), which American cops seem to cultivate, is absent here. I haven’t completely decided if this is good or bad…but I personally feel better about it.

The following story should illustrate the extent to which my American instincts and prejudices are still very close to the surface…as well as my growing appreciation for the differences between 'there' and 'here':

Driving to work the other day, I was in the middle of nowhere (a breathtakingly empty section of the Judean Hills), and admittedly pushing the speed limit by a 'small' margin. As I crested a hill I caught site of a police car sitting on the shoulder a few hundred yards ahead. Klong! That feeling I described above came stomping down on the pit of my stomach with jackboots. I instinctively began pumping the brakes, but I was already resigned to the fact that I was about to get my first Israeli speeding ticket (the last speeding ticket I received was as a high school senior in ‘79).

Sure enough a policeman, who had been standing and talking to his partner inside the car, strolled casually into the roadway and held up his hand with all the fingertips (thumb included) pressed together and pointed skyward. Depending on the context, this uniquely Israeli gesture can mean, 'just a moment', 'wait', 'have a little patience', or 'stop'. There was no confusing the intent of the policeman’s gesture…so I slowed to a stop just in front of the police car, turned off the ignition and sat listening to the ticking sound that cars seem to only make at times like this.

In the States, this is the moment where important decisions are made; Do I argue? Should I be contrite? Are there any mitigating circumstances that might tip the scales in my favor? I even had to consider the additional matter of how to do any, or all, of these things effectively in Hebrew (or perhaps try that old immigrant favorite: Pretend not to understand)!

In the end, I didn’t get a chance to do any of those things.

As the policeman’s boots crunched to a stop on the gravel outside my open window, he preempted my plea by politely explaining that he had '…just gotten off shift, and would I, by any chance be passing the town where he lived?'

I was so unprepared for this turn of events that I wasn’t sure I had heard him correctly. He misunderstood the confusion on my face and plowed ahead to hurriedly explain that he knew it was inappropriate for him to ask a citizen for a ride, but very few people travel this road and his partner was heading home in the opposite direction.

With a big grin on my face and 'guilt sweat' still dripping down my back, I said the Hebrew equivalent of, "Sure, hop in!"

The 15 minutes until we got to his town (it really was right on my way) were uneventfully passed with small talk about the weather (unusually hot and dusty), basketball (the recent Macabbee Tel Aviv triumph), and the latest news from Gaza (all bad). If he had any inkling that I was giddy with relief, he didn’t let on. The fact is, I don’t think he would have understood my emotional state even if I had tried to explain it to him. He could have easily given me a ticket (I admit it wasn't even a close call), but if the event had ended with a ticket sitting on the passenger seat instead of a cop, I know now that it wold have been an annoyance...not a trauma.

Israeli cops command respect - make no mistake. But the familiarity of our shared cultural experiences seems to have tempered the respect so that it doesn’t bump up against any emotions remotely resembling fear. Some might say this is a bad thing, and that it might make it harder for Israeli police to do their job. But I’m very comfortable living in a country where a policeman could never comprehend the jumble of fear and paranoia I used to feel while driving in front of a cop on the Merritt Parkway.

Posted by David Bogner on May 12, 2004 | Permalink

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