Israel is by no means a homogeneous country. Within its various ethnic and religious groups are numerous subsections, from Orthodox Jews to Catholic monks to Israelis and Palestinians of all faiths. Daily life, therefore, varies wildly not only town by town, but street by street and even house by house. The result of this can be confusing, and even overwhelming, but beginning to understand these diverse communities can also be intensely rewarding.
Values & Lifestyle
Although Israel is a Western-oriented liberal democracy with a booming high-tech economy, the country’s incredible patchwork of ethnic groups, belief systems, languages and family stories make for a wide array of worldviews, personal priorities and lifestyles, as you'll see when you travel around.
Israeli society was founded a century ago on socialist principles, exemplified by the shared communal life of the kibbutz (though even at the height of the kibbutz movement, only 3% of the Jewish population lived in one). These days, the vast majority of Israelis have shifted to a decidedly bourgeois and individualistic outlook, creating aspirations – including international travel – whose fulfilment depends in large part on finding good jobs with middle-class paychecks. These are increasingly hard to find, even in Tel Aviv, and have always been few and far between in the geographical 'periphery'.
In the bubble of Tel Aviv, secular Jews – alongside smaller numbers of Modern Orthodox Jews, Israeli Arabs and expats – work, shop, eat, play and create art with an intensity and panache that has more in common with Silicon Valley, Berlin and the booming cities of East Asia than with the city’s poor suburbs or the development towns of the Galilee and Negev. Meanwhile, in Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) neighbourhoods such as Jerusalem’s Mea She’arim, residents strive to preserve (or re-create) the lifestyle of 18th-century Eastern Europe. And although most kibbutzim have been 'privatised', with member-owned apartments and income determined by an individual's earning power, the residents of the country’s 74 remaining ‘communal’ kibbutzim still live lives of 1950s-style socialist equality.
Hebrew culture and the arts are immensely important so reading literature and going out to concerts, the theatre and films are an integral part of life for many Israeli Jews. A longstanding love of the outdoors has helped make Israelis an active lot: hiking, cycling, windsurfing, backpacking, camping and other leisure activities are hugely popular.
In the Muslim Arab, Christian Arab, Bedouin, Druze and Circassian villages of the Galilee and the Negev, the pace of life is heavily influenced by religion (generally moderate and Western-oriented among Christians and Circassians, quite traditional among Muslims and Druze), economic realities (including job discrimination) and the latest, often disquieting, news from the Palestinian Territories and the Knesset. Many young people live at home until they get married.
Family is hugely important for virtually all Israelis. Young Jews may leave the nest at 18 to serve in the army, backpack through Southeast Asia, study, and live with a boyfriend or girlfriend, but even among the most secular there is, for men as well as women, constant – some would say unrelenting – pressure to find a partner and bring children into the world.
Israel’s military has been part of daily life since the country’s birth, and for most young Israeli Jews being drafted – three years for men, two for women – is a rite of passage. Israel Defence Forces (IDF) service is also compulsory for Druze and Circassian men, and some Bedouin and Christian Arab men volunteer to serve. To the chagrin of many, draft exemptions are granted to the vast majority of ultra-Orthodox Jewish men and to most Orthodox and all ultra-Orthodox Jewish women.
Reservists can be called up (though most aren’t) for training every year or two, generally until age 40 for men and until age 24 (or until the birth of their first child) for women. Soldiers are everywhere – especially, it seems, on buses and trains – and while it remains a jarring sight for first-time visitors, Israelis are unfazed by the proliferation of automatic weapons. If asked, some may answer that while being armed to the teeth is hardly ideal, it sure beats what their grandparents had to go through, hiding from Cossacks in Russia or anti-Jewish mobs in Iraq.
Israeli women have personal freedom, social status and professional opportunities on a par with their European counterparts and have played significant roles in the economy, politics (eg Golda Meir) and even the army (Israel is the only country to have a military draft for women). However, as in Ottoman times, marriage and divorce for Jews remain in the hands of the Chief Rabbinate, dominated by the ultra-Orthodox, whose all-male religious judges favour traditional male prerogatives over women’s rights.
In recent years, some of Israel’s ultra-Orthodox communities have become noticeably more concerned (some would say obsessed) with 'modesty', attempting to enforce ever-stricter rules aimed at separating men and women. Attempts to gender-segregate public transport (women are sent to the back of the bus) and even sidewalks, and to ban images of women from advertising billboards, have been met by protests – and legislation forbidding the exclusion of women and images of women from the public sphere.
And then there is the ongoing debate about the separation of men and women at the Western Wall in Jerusalem, which has been segregated since 1967 (but before 1948 had always been a mixed prayer area). Since 1988, feminist group Women of the Wall have lobbied for an end to restrictions on female prayer at the site (women are forbidden from reading the Torah aloud and wearing prayer shawls). In 2017, Netanyahu scrapped a 2016 deal that would have created a mixed prayer area at the wall in the face of protests from ultra-Orthodox parites in his coalition.
Feature: The Role of Judaism
Judaism – as a religion, a national identity and a civilisation – has a significant impact on the daily lives of all Israeli Jews. For the Orthodox and especially the ultra-Orthodox (Haredim), virtually every action and decision is governed by Halacha (Jewish law), as interpreted by more than 2000 years of legal precedent. Secular Jews pay little attention to the daily discipline of Jewish observance, but their lives are still defined by the weekly rhythm of Shabbat and the annual cycle of Jewish holidays. Many Jewish Israelis define themselves not as ‘secular’ (ie ideologically secularist) but as 'traditional' (masorti) – for instance, young people may have Shabbat (Saturday) lunch with their family before heading out to a football match.
Studies show that in recent years, Israeli Jews have been showing increasing religiosity. Secular Jews are keeping more Shabbat rituals, often for cultural rather than theological reasons; traditional Jews are becoming a bit more traditional; and some Modern and ultra-Orthodox Jews are turning to ever-stricter interpretations of Halacha.
The exponential growth of the Haredi community is creating all sorts of frictions, for example, in formerly secular neighbourhoods in which new Haredi residents demand that roads be closed on the Sabbath and swimming pools be segregated by sex.
Most schools run by the ultra-Orthodox teach only religious subjects, providing virtually no education in science, mathematics, history, literature or English and producing generations of young people with few job skills. A significant majority of ultra-Orthodox men never work; instead they are supported by government subsidies while studying in yeshivot (religious seminaries) and kollelim (seminaries for married men). Haredi women, who are not bound by the Halachic command to spend every waking moment on religious study, are entering the workforce in increasing numbers, often as their family's sole breadwinner – despite also having to look after six, eight or more children.
On the Sabbath, observant Jews refrain from performing 39 ‘creative activities’, including lighting or extinguishing fires, using electricity, travelling by motorised vehicle, writing, cooking, baking, sewing, harvesting, doing business, handling money, and transporting objects between private and public spaces.
Sidebar: Israeli Jews
Among Israeli Jews, 42% define themselves as ‘secular’, 38% as ‘traditional’ to one degree or another, 12% as modern Orthodox and 8% as ultra-Orthodox (Haredi). Source: a 2009 survey by Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics.
Sidebar: Kosher Phones
Hundreds of thousands of ultra-Orthodox Israelis use ‘kosher’ mobile phones that block access to 'inappropriate' content and lack cameras and text messaging, potentially tools for illicit flirting. Some models come with a Yiddish interface and Hassidic ringtones.
Sidebar: Gay Scene
Gays and lesbians can pursue an open and, if they choose, flamboyant lifestyle in Tel Aviv, but the smaller gay scene in more conservative Jerusalem is low-key and circumspect.
The diverse range of people that call Israel home – from Arab to Druze to Mizrahi and Azhenazi Jews – has always found its expression in literature, music, film or visual arts. In most towns and cities visitors will find small galleries, which are a great place to see the latest in Israeli art. When it comes to music, Israel has hosted high-profile artists from Guns N’ Roses to the Rolling Stones in recent years.
Israelis across the political spectrum see the revival of the Hebrew language and the creation of modern Hebrew literature as the crowning cultural achievements of the State of Israel. Some names to keep an eye out for (their major works are available in English translation):
Shmuel Yosef Agnon (1888–1970) Israel’s Nobel winner examined the dichotomy between traditional Jewish and modern life.
Yehuda Amichai (1924–2000) His poetry, written in colloquial Hebrew, captured the public’s imagination with its gently ironic explorations of daily life.
Ephraim Kishon (1924–2005) The works of the brilliant Hungarian-born satirist skewer Israeli society and universal human foibles.
Aharon Appelfeld (1932–2018) In novels such as Badenheim 1939 (1978), the Holocaust hovers just off stage.
AB Yehoshua (b 1936) Caught between intentions and their implementation, his characters struggle to break out of their loneliness.
Amos Oz (b 1939) His works paint compelling, if sometimes bleak, pictures of an Israel few visitors encounter.
Meir Shalev (b 1948) Often set in Israel's recent past, Shalev's highly acclaimed novels deal with vengeance and masculinity.
David Grossman (b 1954) The novelist established his reputation with The Yellow Wind (1987), a blistering and prescient look at Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian Territories.
Zeruya Shalev (b 1959) Through her characters' inner life, Shalev explores family ties, yearning, the compromises people make and the pull of the past.
Orly Castel-Bloom (b 1960) Known for postmodern sensibilities and irony, with characters suspended between meaninglessness and moments of belonging.
Etgar Keret (b 1967) Dubbed 'the voice of his generation' for his often humorous postmodern short stories, screenplays and graphic novels.
Dorit Rabinyan (b 1972) Israeli writer whose controversial novel All the Rivers Run was banned by Israel's education ministry for its portrayal of an Arab-Jewish love affair.
Sayed Kashua (b 1975) Israeli-Arab humourist known for his tongue-in-cheek portraits of the lives and travails of Arab Israelis.
Israeli music encompasses a rich tapestry of modes, scales and vocal styles inspired by the musical traditions of both the East and West.
Israelis of all ages listen to songs from decades past without necessarily thinking of them as ‘retro’. Among the still-popular greats of the mid-20th century is the Yemen-born singer Shoshana Damari (1923–2006), renowned for her peerless pronunciation of the guttural letter ‘ayn. Naomi Shemer (1930–2004) composed much of the soundtrack of Israel’s 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, including the iconic – though rarely heard – ‘Jerusalem of Gold’ (1967).
Despite the 1965 banning of a Beatles tour by Israel’s cultural commissars, rock quickly made itself a fixture on the local music scene thanks to groups such as Poogy (Kaveret), Mashina, Teapacks (named after Tipp-Ex, the correction fluid) and Benzin. Rock has inspired many of the anthems of classic Israeli pop – names to listen for include Shlomo Artzi, Arik Einstein, Matti Caspi, Shalom Hanoch, Yehudit Ravitz, Assaf Amdursky and Aviv Geffen. Idan Raichel introduced Ethiopian melodies to a mainstream audience.
Among the Israeli hip-hop artists and groups you may come across are Shabak Samech, HaDag Nachash, Subliminal, and militant right-wing rapper The Shadow. One of the most exuberant performers of dance music has been Dana International (www.danainternational.co.il), a half-Yemenite transsexual who won the Eurovision Song Contest in 1998.
Mizrahi (Oriental or Eastern) music, with its Middle Eastern and Mediterranean scales and rhythms, has its roots in the melodies of North Africa (especially Umm Kulthum–era Egypt and mid-century Morocco), Iraq and Yemen. Many modern works, though, are inspired by musical styles from the Mediterranean basin, especially Turkey and Greece. For decades Mizrahi music was banned from the radio – the Ashkenazi cultural elite feared ‘Levantinisation’ – so to find the work of artists such as Zohar Argov (1955–87) and Haim Moshe (b 1956) you had to head to grungy cassette shops around Tel Aviv’s (old) central bus station.
These days, though, Mizrahi music may be Israel’s most popular genre. Old-timers Shlomo Bar (www.shlomobar.com) and Yair Dalal (www.yairdalal.com), inspired by the traditional Jewish music of Morocco and Iraq respectively, are still performing, joined more recently by superstars Sarit Hadad (www.sarit-hadad.com), who has been described as Israel’s Britney Spears, and Amir Benayoun, whose genre-defying concerts mix love songs, medieval Jewish liturgical poems and strident nationalism. Moshe Peretz enjoys crossing the line from Mizrahi to mainstream and back again.
Another popular trend is to use Jewish religious vocabulary and soundscapes to express latent religious feelings. Over the last few years, performers such as Etti Ankri, Ehud Banai, David D’Or, Kobi Oz, Berry Sakharof and Gilad Segev have turned towards traditional – mainly Sephardic and Mizrahi – liturgical poetry and melodies to create works with massive mainstream popularity.
Mizrahi music's traditional Ashkenazi counterpart, Klezmer, has not enjoyed as much crossover popularity. Born in the shtetls (ghettos) of Eastern Europe, Jewish ‘soul’ can take you swiftly from ecstasy to the depths of despair – check it out at the Tsfat Klezmer Festival.
Israel has a strong Western classical tradition thanks to Jewish refugees from Nazism and post-Soviet immigrants from Russia. The Israel Philharmonic Orchestra (www.ipo.co.il) – whose first concert, in 1936, was conducted by Arturo Toscanini – is world renowned.
Israelis attend the theatre more often than almost any other people. Tel Aviv, Jaffa, Jerusalem and Haifa have a profusion of companies, venues and festivals both large and small. The Acco Festival of Alternative Israeli Theatre (www.accofestival.co.il) brings innovative fringe productions to Akko each fall.
Most performances are in Hebrew, though you can also find plays in Arabic, Russian and Yiddish. Some companies offer English subtitled translations once a week or more.
Many contemporary Israeli plays tackle the hot political and social issues of the day. In recent years, the Holocaust, refuseniks, the West Bank occupation, suicide and homosexuality within Orthodox Judaism have all been explored onstage. Playwrights to keep an eye out for include Hanoch Levin (1942–99), provocative enough to have had several of his plays censored in the 1970s, Nissim Aloni (1926–98), Yehoshua Sobol (b 1939), Hillel Mittelpunkt (b 1952) and Shmuel Hasfari (b 1954).
Attending a musical performed by the Yiddish troupe Yiddishpiel (www.yiddishpiel.co.il) is like a quick trip to pre-Holocaust Warsaw, though performances are heavy on nostalgia and the subtitles are in Hebrew and Russian, not English.
For something unusual and poignant, head to Jaffa’s Nalaga’at Centre, home to the world’s only deaf-blind theatre company.
Jerusalem’s Bezalel Academy of Arts & Design (www.bezalel.ac.il), established in 1906 to provide training for both European-educated artists and traditional Yemenite artisans, developed a distinctive style combining biblical themes with the sinuous, curvaceous lines of art nouveau (Jugendstil). Today, the academy remains one of the most exciting forces in Israel’s art scene.
During the 1930s, German-Jewish artists fleeing Nazism brought with them the bold forms of German expressionism. The New Horizons group, which strove to create visual art in line with European movements, emerged after 1948 and remained dominant until the 1960s. Romanian-born Marcel Janco, one of the founders of the Dada cultural movement, immigrated to Palestine in 1941 and later established the artists’ village of Ein Hod, where a museum features his work.
In Israel’s cities, keep an eye out for modern sculpture – works range from provocative to whimsical.
Israel’s leading art museums, Jerusalem’s Israel Museum and the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, have superb permanent collections and often showcase contemporary Israeli artists. For details on the country’s many museums, check out www.ilmuseums.com.
Israeli cinema has come a long way since the silent footage of the late Ottoman era, the heroic documentaries of the 1930s and 1940s, and the comic borekas movies (named after the flaky Balkan pastry) that dominated big screens during the 1970s. In recent years, Israeli feature films and documentaries – many of which take a highly critical look at Israeli society and policies – have been garnering prizes at major film festivals, including Cannes, Berlin, Toronto and Sundance. Israel's 10 Oscar nominees include Ephraim Kishon's Sallah (Sallah Shabati; 1964), a comedy set in a 1950s transit camp for Mizrahi Jewish immigrants, and Ari Folman's Waltz with Bashir (2008), an extraordinary animated documentary about Israel's 1982 First Lebanon War.
The country’s first cinema, the Eden, opened in 1914 in Tel Aviv, on the edge of Neve Tzedek. Today, there are thriving cinematheques in Haifa (www.haifacin.co.il), Jerusalem (www.jer-cin.org.il) and Tel Aviv (www.cinema.co.il).
Israeli celebrations of the Seventh Art include the following:
- Docaviv International Documentary Film Festival (www.docaviv.co.il) In Tel Aviv.
- Haifa International Film Festival (www.haifaff.co.il)
- Tel Aviv International Student Film Festival (www.taufilmfest.com)
- Jerusalem Film Festival (www.jff.org.il)
- Other Israel Film Festival (www.otherisrael.org) Focuses on Israel’s minorities, including its Arab citizens.
- Tel Aviv International LGBT Film Festival (www.tlvfest.com)
For a complete database of made-in-Israel movies, see the website of the Manhattan-based Israel Film Center, www.israelfilmcenter.org.
Israel has several world-renowned professional dance companies. The acclaimed Bat Sheva Dance Company (www.batsheva.co.il), founded by Martha Graham in 1964, is based at Tel Aviv’s Suzanne Dellal Centre. The Kibbutz Contemporary Dance Company (www.kcdc.co.il) performs around the country.
In the realm of folk dancing, Israel is famous for the hora, brought from Romania by 19th-century immigrants. The best place to see folk dancing is at the Karmiel Dance Festival (www.karmielfestival.co.il), held over three days in early July in the central Galilee.
Sidebar: Israel Festival
Israel’s grandest performing-arts festival, the Israel Festival (www.israel-festival.org.il), is held every year in May and June in Jerusalem.
Sidebar: Jerusalem International Book Fair
Attended by 600 publishers from 30 countries, the huge Jerusalem International Book Fair (www.jerusalembookfair.com) has been held in odd-numbered years since 1963. It’s here that the prestigious Jerusalem Prize for Literature is awarded.
Sidebar: Hebrew Book Week
The Hebrew Book Week (www.sfarim.org.il), an incredibly popular carnival of the printed word, brings scores of publishers’ book stalls – and steep discounts – to public squares and bookshops in a number of Israeli cities in mid-June.
Sidebar: Music Festivals
Musical festivities in Israel include the twice-a-year Abu Gosh Vocal Music Festival (www.agfestival.co.il), Eilat’s Red Sea Jazz Festival (https://en.redseajazz.co.il) and, for dance music, Tel Aviv’s annual Love Parade.
The best places in Israel to find creative Judaica (Jewish ritual objects) are Jerusalem (eg Yoel Moshe Salomon St), Tsfat (the Synagogue Quarter and the Artists’ Quarter) and Tel Aviv’s Nahalat Binyamin crafts market (Tuesday and Friday).
Sidebar: Ophir Awards
Each autumn, the Israeli Academy of Film & Television (www.israelfilmacademy.co.il) chooses the winners of the Ophir Awards, Israel's equivalent of the Oscars.
For Jews both religious and nonreligious, Shabbat, the day of rest, is a time for family. Across the country, Israeli Jews will sit down together on Friday evening for the lighting of candles, the blessing of wine and a festive dinner.
For tourists, the Shabbat can range from mild inconvenience (not being able to find anywhere to eat) to potential disaster (finding yourself unable to get public transport back to your accommodation). But it is also a memorable part of any visit.
Shabbat begins 18 minutes before sundown on Friday (36 minutes in Jerusalem) and ends an hour after sundown on Saturday night (technically, until three stars can be seen in the heavens, according to Jewish law). During this time, the streets of many Israeli cities – including mostly secular Tel Aviv – have noticeably less traffic, but few Israeli Jews, except for the Orthodox, follow Sabbath prohibitions.
Because Israel is both religiously and culturally diverse, the impact of Shabbat varies from place to place. In Tel Aviv, Friday is one of the biggest nights for dining out, cultural events and bar-hopping. Majority-Arab cities and areas such as Nazareth, Akko and Jaffa are unaffected (although Friday is the Muslim day of rest so it can be quieter than usual), as is Arab East Jerusalem.
The best places to observe a traditional Shabbat are in Tsfat and Jerusalem, where it is ushered in by a long blast on a horn that reverberates throughout the city. It is a fascinating time to be in the Old City, where Haredi men and boys, with their black suits and ringlets, rush to the Western Wall in time for sunset prayers.
Because the impact of Shabbat isn't universal across the country, we've ranked how strictly Shabbat is observed in each region, with 5 being the most observant and 1 being the least.
Airports & Public Transport
Israel's airports operate as usual on Shabbat. However, most inter- and intra-city buses and trains – including transport to/from the airports – cease operation from Friday afternoon until sometime on Saturday afternoon (bus services often begin several hours before sundown). Some local buses operate in mixed Jewish-Arab cities such as Haifa.
Border Crossings & West Bank Checkpoints
Checkpoints between Israel and the West Bank and border crossings with Jordan and Egypt remain open on Shabbat, but can be busy because of heavy traffic (particularly at Jalameh in the West Bank). The Allenby Crossing with Jordan closes early on Friday and Saturday afternoons so arrive early to avoid getting stuck on either side of the border.
Shabbat is when the division between kosher and nonkosher (observant vs non-observant) restaurants in Jerusalem really comes to the fore: the former will close their doors mid-afternoon on Friday and in some cases will not open until Sunday. This includes most eateries in West Jerusalem, including on Jaffa St, although there are some exceptions. In some hotels, the front desk will shut down (to avoid the restrictions on working and handling money) and staff may ask you to settle your bill before sunset on Friday.
There are no buses on Shabbat, although sheruts still run. Taxis are relatively plentiful but official fares are 25% higher than on weekdays, and drivers are even less likely than usual to use the meter. It is advisable to catch a cab in the east of the city to get a reasonable price. The Nesher service between Jerusalem and Ben Gurion Airport runs on Shabbat, as do the sheruts to Tel Aviv, but they leave from Jaffa St, to the west of the Jerusalem Hostel.
Be warned that driving through Orthodox neighbourhoods on Shabbat is not only ill-advised but can be dangerous: many of the streets are barricaded and youths have been known to throw stones at cars.
Although proudly secular, visitors to Tel Aviv will still feel the impact of Shabbat. The streets are noticeably quieter, and buses and trains are replaced with sheruts. As a result, getting to the airport usually involves getting a taxi (250NIS), worth bearing in mind if you book a flight on a Saturday.
Most bars and restaurants remain open, though, particularly on thumping Allenby and Rothschild Sts, and Jaffa is almost entirely unaffected.
In Haifa and Akko, it is possible to not even notice Shabbat, with Haifa’s nightlife pounding on regardless and Akko's large Muslim population meaning there is little interruption to services. On the other hand, Zichron Ya'akov will feel strongly observant, and the Holocaust memorials at Kibbutz Lohamei HaGeta'ot are closed.
Everything in Nazareth is open, but Tiberias mostly shuts down except for a handful of restaurants. All the tourist sites around the Sea of Galilee (Christian sites, national parks, nature reserves, paid-for and free beaches) are open, though beaches can be crowded. Heading to Nazareth for dinner on Friday night is a good option, but traffic jams can be a nightmare.
Upper Galilee & Golan
Tsfat is completely closed on Shabbat, as are the wineries of the Dalton Plateau. Rosh Pina is mostly open and so are the nature reserves of the Hula Valley and along the Lebanese border. Most restaurants are also open. On the Golan, Katzrin is shut except for two restaurants, but the many nature reserves and almost all tourist sites are open, as are the Druze villages.
Given that it is not home to any major population centres, it is easy to forget that it is Shabbat when visiting the Dead Sea. Virtually everything is open, including nature reserves, restaurants, shops and beaches. In fact, Saturday can be a good time to tour the area as it is quieter than on Fridays, when Israeli families descend. Be aware that the Allenby Bridge has reduced opening hours on Shabbat (3pm on both Friday and Saturday), and it is imperative to get to the crossing even earlier than usual.
Virtually everything in Eilat is open (Israelis hardly come to beach-party central to rest), and visitors are unlikely to notice Shabbat on the Red Sea coast. In Be'er Sheva, while most tourist sites are open, the city itself, including shops, public transport and some restaurants, is closed. Mitzpe Ramon has a fair bit to do on Friday night and Saturday. Nature reserves are open.