Arts & 6ife
On The Bookshelf
A Revealing Look
As Jews celebrate Yom HaAtzmaut (Israel Independence Day),
longtime journalist seeks to uncover the real Israelis.
"There was one Arab, in Urn El-Fahm, who at
first spent the whole time talking about his life in
the village. But after four glasses of wine, I got a
whole different story.
onna Rosenthal was a teenager when she
"Then, the same thing happened with a soldier
decided spur-of-the-moment to visit
had just come back from the West Bank I
Israel "because it was cheap."
spent four days straight with him, going out and
The year was 1969, and when she
hanging out, and by the fourth day, I got a whole
landed in the port city of Haifa, the El Paso native
was in for a shock.
"If you really want to get to someone's soul, you
"My life really changed then. I had all these
have to hang out."
stereotypes. I didn't realize there are poor Jews and
explained how she chose the "man on the
dark-skinned Jews and Christian Arabs and Muslim
street" as opposed to
Arabs and Druze and Bedouin all living there.
"I was totally amazed," said the longtime journal-
"I like to talk to peo-
ist who graduated from University of California-
who work in the
Berkeley, in a telephone interview from her San
at Intel rather
than the CEO," she
What Rosenthal learned in the following years is
said. "I interviewed
that she wasn't alone. The misconceptions she had
about the citizens of Israel are common among
who wash the floor at
many well-educated people, she said.
an exclusive spa,"
While Israel is one of the most widely covered
rather than its patrons.
countries in the world, misconceptions still abound,
She interviewed pros-
titutes. And soldiers.
"On the one hand, people see an Israel where
And read the graffiti on
bombs are going off all the time, and it's this war
zone," she said. "On the other side, people think it's
And she hung out in
like a travel poster, where everyone's dancing the
development towns like
hora on a kibbutz. But most agricultural workers on
Kiryat Gat and Kiryat
the kibbutz now are Thai."
Shmona, as opposed to
And now, Rosenthal, who was a reporter for the
Jerusalem Post and for Israel Radio as well as a news just Tel Aviv and
producer at Israel Television, has written a book to
"If you want to
help debunk those myths and stereotypes.
The Israelis: Ordinary People in an Extraordinary Land understand America,
you don't just go to
(Free Press; $28) is a four-years-in-the-making .effort to
shed light on those who live in the Jewish state — those Beverly Hills and
Washington," she said.
who, as Rosenthal puts it in her introduction, "order
She also made sure
Big Macs in the language of the Ten Commandments,
she included a mix of
believe that waiting in line is for sissies and light up
Marlboros under No Smoking' signs."
For her research, Rosenthal did not merely sit in
Ashkenazim are those most often seen on television
people's living rooms and interview them.
and in the media, most people think they are in the
"To really understand a country, you have to go
majority, when, in fact, the numbers are about half
into the classrooms, the discos and the bedrooms,"
she said, describing how she began hanging out with and half, said Rosenthal, who is both herself.
Rosenthal deliberately focused on younger people,
her subjects, often for days at a time.
mostly in their 20s and 30s, and she set another rule
"I went into a Druze girl's bedroom and she had
Brad Pitt posters on the wall, even though she had a
"There are no famous people or politicians; I tried
scarf on her head and can't date," Rosenthal recalled.
avoid them. Basically, [those in the book] are peo-
"In a haredi
ple you would never see on Ni ghtline or Meet the
house, the father wouldn't look at me, but I looked
in his son's room, and we surfed the Internet togeth-
In doing her research, Rosenthal learned that even
er. I also spent a lot of time in a maternity ward,
often know nothing about one another. She
where I saw the future of Jerusalem."
Spending time with her subjects as they went
don't even know that the most afflu-
about their daily lives, as opposed to simply inter-
ent people per capita in Israel are the Arab
viewing them and then leaving, gave her deeper
Christians," she said.
ALEXANDRA J. WALL
Jewish News Weekly ofNorthern California
Many never cross paths with those of different
faiths, cultures or levels of observance. A secular
friend of Rosenthal's had never met the Orthodox
wig designer who lives around the corner from her.
"It's very rare for a Muslim to have been to the
home of the most liberal left-wing Jewish family,
and yet they're living five minutes apart," she said.
"So the book was written to smash stereotypes and
have people tell their own stories."
Though a seasoned journalist, Rosenthal was writ-
ing under difficult circumstances. When she
embarked on the project, Israel's high-tech sector
was booming, its economy was in good shape and
tourists were coming.
Of course in September 2000, with the start of
the second intifada, everything changed; including
"I had to rewrite large sections or trash them," she
said. "Writing about Israel is like Alice in
And since Israel was her
home, too, she was greatly
impacted personally. Not
only was she living in
downtown Jerusalem, in a
neighborhood where 11
bombs had gone off within
a three-block radius, but a
close friend was killed in a
"It would be a lot easier
to write a book about
Iceland," she admitted. "I
tried to keep myself out of
it and was walking on
eggshells to keep it bal-
But even then, she would
encounter problems, she
said. An interview with a
young haredi man sheds
light on his experience, she
said, but there are maybe
20 different sects of fervent-
ly religious Jews. And while
an interview with a young
woman of Moroccan
descent can be telling, she
noted, "there is a hell of a
difference between being a
poor Moroccan and an educated Moroccan."
Rosenthal was sure to give fair coverage to Israel's
non-Jewish population, specifically its Arab popula-
tion. So many Jewish Israelis do not trust their Arab
neighbors, she said, not realizing they have much
more in common than they might think.
"I have a Muslim friend who wears a tight
miniskirt," she said. "People don't realize [there are
secular Muslims who] go to discos a lot and never
go to the mosque."
And Rosenthal described the strange line Israeli
"We have much more in common culturally than
we would imagine," she said, while commenting
that Arabs have learned brusqueness from Israeli
"So many Muslims in high-tech are sent to Jordan