Quit Thinking American: Sink or Swim and my first weeks in Tel Aviv

Screenshot of me selling הולצות (shirts)

The Florentin neighborhood is a canvas for the artists who live there… no blank wall stays untagged for long. It’s also the neighborhood where I am living for the next five months in an apartment with five of my other friends. It’s been a while since I’ve done an entry- a sin to which I have no excuse- so I will try to get to what I can. Many of the new people on the program this semester are from South Africa, Australia and Britain, which has been awesome to hang out with people from different places. Us loud Americans are driving especially the arrogant british nuts already and I have, to my happiness, been branded ‘the not annoying American.’ I am working for a company called Koolulam, a social- musical initiative that holds group singing events aiming to strengthen the fabric of society. With 600, 2,000 or even 12,000 people singing in harmony together, the feeling is really powerful. In a meeting, the CEO expressed to me that the Koolulam office is a ‘place for creators.’ If you know me, this is exactly up my alley.

On my very first day, I was thrown in with the production team to help run an event in Jerusalem with 700 participants. Running late, we quickly set up our rig, merchandise, and ticketing apparatus. I was put on scanning tickets. Imagine 700 people pushing in a line, speaking at you in Chinese all with specific questions about a performance which means you need to know specific words that you’ve never heard before like ‘tickets’ and ‘to scan.’ I felt pretty out of place as I tried to help Hebrew speaking Israelis with specific questions; I abandoned any hope of maintaining my high standard of service and impressing my team members. I just had to survive. Flustered, the best I could choke out was “Slicha, ani medber raq kitsat evreit, Anglit?” – “Sorry I speak only a little hebrew, English?” One customer replied characteristically; “llama” “Why?”

Afterwards, I felt terrible like I had failed myself and my team. However, they told me genuinely ‘Kol Hakavod’, ‘good job.’ My feelings, I realized, are guided by my American mindset that I should be a master of my job when I go in the field. However, the mindset of my Israeli bosses is the opposite; jump in the water and sink or swim. If you swim, you are learning.

Last night I was on the production team for a second event, this time in Haifa. Beforehand, I centered myself and tried to maintain confidence in my language skills throughout the night. Whether I was selling shirts or helping to seat people, I communicated in Hebrew in nearly every encounter and I kept calm and problem solved when I couldn’t understand. I felt really proud of myself. I was swimming.

In addition to jumping on the production team, the bulk of my work is in the various groups in the office where I have already worked to edit copy, write scripts, and record voice overs for commercials. 

I’m reminded again and again that I have to adapt my American mindset to Israel. My neighborhood filled with graffiti and grime would be ‘sketchy’ in America. Here, it’s a place where the inhabitants express their views not only in lively conversations in corner bars and cafes but with spray cans on public walls. On the first day of Koolulam when I wasn’t able to do my job well, I the American, felt that I had failed the first test. To pass however, all my team expected me to do was tread water. Then I could learn how to swim.