Science in Israel / Kathleen Abadie
When I first came to Israel and got my Weizmann Institute email, I was surprised at the regular institute-wide emails announcing deaths in the families of department members. These announcements were not just for notable faculty or well-known family, but as far as I could tell, for everyone. As an American used to the private nature of death and tragedy, I wondered why I needed to know about these strangers’ passings. What I came to appreciate is that these shiva announcements are representative of the Israeli tendency to mourn, to celebrate, and generally to feel out loud. The buffer between what people feel and what they show is much thinner in Israel than in the United States, and this has a profound impact on the practice of science. Here I will relate my learnings from ten months of living and researching in Israel as a Fulbright Fellow at the Weizmann Institute. These are my interpretations, passed through the filter of my particular American upbringing, of the new culture I’ve been privileged to experience. Bluntness, often equated with rudeness, is the first widely known Israeli characteristic I learned of before arriving in the country. Anyone familiar with Israelis warned me of this, probably seeing in me a fragile American accustomed to decorum and avoidance of uncomfortable conversation topics, about to be pummeled by the brutal directness of the Israeli people. I steeled myself for the onslaught, and indeed I saw early signs of it: in my first meeting with the principal investigator of the lab I joined, he suggested I stop wasting both our time and get to the point ten minutes into my project proposal. However, after almost a year in the country and hearing countless comments that Americans would probably avoid, it’s not the rudeness I remember, but the other side of the same coin: the uninhibited warmth of the Israeli people. The essence of Israeli warmth is in the nuance of its delivery. I encountered hospitality from many angles: a woman I met at the beach invited me to join her family for multiple Shabbat dinners over the course of my stay, a cyclist neighbor lent me his bike pump on our first meeting and welcomed me on all his morning rides, and my new lab mates continually asked me about myself and checked in to see that I was settling in well. Any of these acts, though, could easily happen in America. So what was it about Israel that somehow felt warmer? I realized that it’s not so much the acts of kindness themselves, but that those who bear them show you their inner lives with no hesitation. During my first Shabbat dinner with the woman from the beach, I was already flipping through family photo albums and hearing stories of her daughter’s birth complications. When my cyclist neighbor came down from his apartment to meet me for the first time, his little daughter and energetic dog tumbled down the stairs after him, his daughter shyly but proudly spouting off English words to me. When my lab mates asked me questions, they also readily shared their own opinions, complaints, and insecurities, all in a genuine but light, laughing manner. The result of all this was that I came to know these new people much more quickly than I ever let people know me, and it motivated me to let myself be more knowable. The walls that compartmentalize distinct interactions in the US simply do not exist in Israel. Professional and personal interactions seem to follow the same norms, and the way Israelis act around new acquaintances is not very different from how they act around old friends. The woman at my local produce market routinely eats a messy sabich sandwich while working the cash register, and Israelis always pick up personal phone calls in the middle of any conversation. Everyone here is just unapologetically himself. This means interactions in the lab span a full spectrum of human emotions that might be professionally kept under the surface elsewhere in the world. On any given day, I may hear literal cries of desperation for intractable experiments, warm accolades for a fellow lab member’s scientific strengths, and brutal teasing about project progress or personal flaws (one lab member memorably told another that he needed to take an ambulance to the hairdresser after coming to work with a bad haircut). While this characteristic certainly makes the workplace more entertaining, its impact is more profound. Because Israelis are always just themselves, it’s easier to see their flaws and failures. My Israeli lab mates tell me about their failed experiments just as readily as they tell me about the successful ones. In this environment, it’s easier to embrace one’s own flaws and failures. Despite the abundance of books, leadership trainings, and professional development courses in the US that emphasize the importance of failure, Americans are constantly fighting an underlying desire for perfection. We know that failure is good for us, and yet we still feel shame when we fail. Israelis, perhaps because of a cultural history wrought with tragedy and the necessity to make the imperfect work, seem to approach the iterative process of failure and progress with a natural ease. This ability to reflect openly, intensely, and finitely on a failure and then move forward with new motivation shares themes with other parts of Jewish Israeli culture. Holocaust Remembrance Day and Memorial Day, two holidays of somber reflection, immediately precede the raucous celebration of Independence Day. The seven day shiva for passed family members, always announced in the Weizmann Institute emails, constitute a fixed period of shared mourning. It strikes me that the fullness and openness of sadness in Israel makes the recovery from it more complete. This general Israeli openness to the less pleasant parts of life has made me re-evaluate my outlook on the people around me. As an American, I was taught to see the good in every person I meet. While I still believe this to be right, I appreciate now the importance of also seeing the bad. If those around us only ever acknowledge our good qualities, we find ourselves alone in the horrible awareness of our faults and shortcomings, with no one to share our insecurities. Thus, despite our good intentions, we implicitly hold each other to unattainable standards that often lead to self-doubt and disappointment. If the quintessential American sees only the good in people, the quintessential Israeli sees both the good and the bad, with acknowledgement of the latter in no way taking away from the former. I see this play out in small moments all the time. I joined my boss and his colleague for a mountain bike ride in the forest between the Weizmann Institute and Jerusalem, and my boss told his colleague (in expletives that I will leave out because of the polite American in me) that he was too slow and messing up the ride. At dinner with a friend’s family, it came up multiple times that the middle sister, who was in attendance, was depressed and having a hard time even putting on normal clothes to leave the house. The way it was discussed, the depression wasn’t embarrassing, and it didn’t take away from who she was; it was just a difficult time that she was going through, and her family knew it. An Israeli friend who immigrated from the US when she was 17 told me that coming to Israel released the constraints she always felt in America due to the expectations and standards of others. Here, I think everyone’s experience is personal, and I do not mean to overgeneralize these cultural differences. For myself, I will take from my time in Israel an intent to better see and welcome the complexity of people’s character, both the good and the bad. I set out to write this essay on what I’ve learned about science in another country, but what I wrote is what I learned about people, and perhaps it’s not so different. As I prepare to head back to the US, I feel my body hum with excitement of being home, where I am from, and where I formed my own personality and approaches to people and work. I am proud of my American qualities, but I’m glad for the chance to contrast them with another people’s. I will likely remain a relatively inhibited, indirect, and idealistic American, but I hope to have absorbed a little Israeli bluntness, warmth, and realism.