February 27, 2018

Israelis live and love to travel


I just came back from a month-long adventure in New Zealand. Yes, I saw lots of sheep (there are some 27 million fluffy sheep grazing the rolling green hills and pastures). But, I also ran into many Israeli travelers. We knew we would run into Israelis, but were still surprised at the over representation of this tiny nation.

Since New Zealand is over 16,000 kilometers away from Israel and Israelis comprise 0.11 % of the world's population, meeting so many Israelis was astonishing. (The world’s population is 6.4 billion and Israel’s population is 8.4 million.)

So why, wherever one travels, does one hear Hebrew? Last year, 7.6 million Israelis traveled abroad. The Israeli Ministry of Tourism reported that nearly three quarters of Israelis went abroad at least once in the last two years. One in three Israeli travelers went away three times in two years and half of the travelers went away two times in the last two years.

Post-army travelers are definitely represented in these high numbers. After having completed a long and tough army service, many young Israelis put on a backpack and fly far away to decompress. You can hear Hebrew on a remote mountain peak in the Himalayas, meet Israelis enjoying a falafel in Berlin and tramping along ancient Aztec trails in the Andes.

Some 60% of them fly off to South East Asia, while 30% go to Central and South America. The remaining 10%? They can be found wandering around Australia, New Zealand and Africa.

However, it's not just young Israelis who love to travel. Older Israelis are also exploring the world in huge numbers. When we were away, we saw Israelis of every age hiking, touring and driving the roads of beautiful New Zealand.

On the flight there, I was seated beside a young woman who was about to travel solo for five weeks in New Zealand. Not your average backpacker, Sari is an Orthodox Jew from B’nai Brak. She was fulfilling a dream and was renting a car and driving across the north and south islands, planning to spend her Shabbats at the various Chabads in New Zealand. She had brought a suitcase of kosher food with her.

We also ran into Israelis at the base of the Tongariro Track, walking the trails on the Abel Tasman Track, and sitting in huts on the Kepler Track. We heard Hebrew in Milford Sound and in a tiny place called Akaroa. 

Israelis of all ages were there. I am not sure why they have the travel bug but it seems to be a national characteristic. 

Here’s another interesting statistic: the population density in New Zealand is 18 people per square kilometer, while Israel’s is 391 people per square kilometer. So maybe because Israel is so small and compact, Israelis have a desire to get out and stretch. 

Geopolitically, domestically and economically, stress in Israel is huge. In New Zealand, people need not be concerned with national defense or terror. Their worries are more in the environmental area. Headline news in the New Zealand Daily Times was “Albatross chick dies after attack.” Even this incident wasn’t hate or racially based. The perpetrator was the baby chick’s mother.

Whatever the reasons may be for heading to far-flung New Zealand, Israeli tourism has made an impact. While in remote Milford Sound, we read about a tour that provided guiding in the following languages: English, German, Mandarin and Hebrew. 

Kova Tembel photo by Sam Itzhakov
What about French, Dutch and Spanish? These languages were not represented, but Hebrew was. We also stayed at one place where earthquake evacuation instructions were in English with the Hebrew translation written underneath. 

We soon started to play the ‘Let's Spot the Israeli’ game, trying to pick them out of a crowd before we heard Hebrew.

Israeli ID giveaways
- Kova tembel sun hat

- Shoresh sandals

- Guys with a koo koo (ponytail) or dreadlocks - these are not European hairstyles

- Guys with a rough shaven look and often beards

- Rugged, casual clothes

We also noticed something deep in the Israeli eyes. This I cannot describe with words as it is almost a soulful knowingness. Most of their eyes are a beautiful blue or green set in an olive complexion. (This is not a Dutch, Scandinavian or German look!) Whatever it is, Israelis do look different. Or, have I developed my own Israeli radar?

We saw three young Israelis, all post army, sitting in a hiking hut quietly working on a jigsaw puzzle. One of them pulled out his camera to proudly show the ranger a photo of a kiwi bird he had spotted. A rare find.

Staying at the same hut, two older Israelis preferred to sit outside alone for breakfast. When they saw Amir pull out his tefillin and daven on the beach, a light of camaraderie opened in their faces. They invited him to eat with them and wished us  ‘lehitraot’ as we left.

On one of the last mornings of our trip, as we were doing dishes in a camper park kitchen in Akaroa, an older guy sat alone. He pulled out a finjan, an Arab-style coffee pot and prepared to make his morning ‘botz. (The Israeli word for mud and a strong Turkish-style coffee.)

He asked us in English if we wanted a coffee. “It's strong,” he warned us. And then we knew!

Who else would travel around with a finjan? He even brought his own paper espresso cups from Israel. We looked down at his feet. Shoresh sandals!

He was a retired air force pilot who was taking out time to see the wonders of the world. He too was heading back to Israel soon and as part of his travel experience as a non-religious Israeli, he would be spending Shabbat at a Chabad in Christchurch!

As soon as he realized we were from Israel, he opened up and was fascinated to meet anomalies like us, Israeli immigrants who speak poor Hebrew and are, as olim, still outsiders in Israeli society. So on his adventures abroad, he also learned more about who lives in his own country.

Travel opens minds. When other travelers (including New Zealanders) asked where we were from, they would always then ask us why we would choose to live in Israel. I never asked people why they were living in Germany or Luxembourg or the Netherlands. I once explained to a young German girl that I am there because I am a Zionist.

“A Zionist?” the young German exclaimed.

It was a conversation stopper. She was silent.

Zionist. That beautiful term I used to describe a return to our homeland obviously has a dark meaning for the rest of the world.

But then Amir explained to her, "It did work out so well for the Jews, my family included, who were living in Europe in the Second World War. We too need a safe place and a homeland.”

Silence again. Hopefully that was food for thought for a young liberal German mind.

When we travel, we open our minds and our souls. We make new connections and broaden our knowledge. 

We develop new appreciations and learn about ourselves and others – and when in New Zealand, this also includes albatross and penguins and sheep!