American Culture Shock: Visiting Israel and Dealing with Shabbat

American tourists would be wise to understand that it is still the world's only Jewish country and customs and habits are a little bit different there than in America.
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The Israel tourism numbers seem to show that there is no shortage of Americans, from all walks of life, who want to visit the country. Because Israel is important to several major religions and a major force on the global stage, this interest is understandable. However, American tourists would be wise to understand that it is still the world's only Jewish country and customs and habits are a little bit different there than in America. This is especially true when it comes to the Sabbath, or Shabbat.

You may have heard about those of the Jewish faith observing the Sabbath and if you live in a large metropolitan area, you may even know about parts of the city that fervently observe it. You may even think you know all about it and that seeing it in Israel would be no big deal. Without educating yourself on it, however, you could be surprised and experience a bit of culture shock.

Most likely, during your trip to Israel you will be spending much of your time in Jerusalem since it is the largest city in the country, and the capital. Experiencing the Shabbat in Jerusalem is not like experiencing it anywhere else.

The Sabbath is taken very seriously and an uneducated tourist could be surprised by this. Things begin to change throughout the entire city starting Thursday night as people start to prepare for the Sabbath even though it does not officially start until sundown on Friday. Then, from sundown on Friday night until sundown on Saturday, the entire city is essentially shut down and families spend time together.

Once again, you might be thinking, in a city as big as Jerusalem and in a country that has all of the modern amenities of any global city, this must be an exaggeration. You may believe that while you are vacationing there you will find plenty of things to do while the country observes Shabbat. If so, that feeling of culture shock may appear once again.

Of course, restaurants and some popular tourist attractions are open during the Sabbath. In fact, many families, on Friday night, walk to the various hotel restaurants for a meal since those are the only restaurants still open. You may be surprised to find the restaurant of your hotel or resort filled with families, dressed in some of their best clothes, dining together as though it were a holiday. A festive atmosphere permeates as families take a break from the work and the stress of their lives and enjoy time together.

On Saturday, things are usually quieter as most families spend time at home. You will see people going for walks and perhaps sitting in parks, but the entire city becomes quiet, reflective, low-key. It is unlike anything you might have seen anywhere in America.

If you are in the Mahane Yehuda, which is the large open-air market in Jerusalem, you will see just how intense and frantic it can become just before Shabbat. Even if you are not in Jerusalem, every city in Israel has a shuk, or market, that is similar. You can buy anything you need there, from pita bread to olives to cheese and spices. You will even see chickens, freshly killed, un-plucked and hanging right in your face in the shuk.

During Fridays, as the country prepares for Shabbat, the market becomes intense and chaotic. The concept of neatly formed lines becomes non-existent. Be prepared for shouting, perhaps a little bit of pushing, and it is not uncommon to find many people cutting in line in front of you. This is not done out of rudeness it is just that everyone is trying to get their shopping done before sundown and the air is filled with the feeling of anticipation. In Israel, it is not uncommon for someone to push you to get in front of you in line one moment and then hug you the next.

To an American tourist, this may come across as rudeness or aggression, but this is just life in Israel while preparing for Shabbat. It is an experience you are unlikely to forget and will likely not see anywhere else on the planet.

Education is always the key. Any traveler should take the time to learn about these customs so that the culture shock they are certain to feel can be a rewarding experience, instead of a negative one. Your travel agent can help and so can your tour operator.

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