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36+ Things That Surprise (And Maybe Delight) First Time Visitors to Israel

Israel is so much more than the Kotel and Mediterranean beaches. Here’s a random list of things that might surprise you on your first trip to Israel.

It virtually never rains in Israel during the summer. From approximately the end of Pesach in the spring until the end of Sukkot in the fall, there is no rain

Strawberries are a winter fruit in Israel.

Outgoing mailboxes in Israel are painted red, a reminder of the days of British rule.

As a water conservation measure, toilets in Israel have two flushes. The smaller one is used when, ahem… a lighter flush of water is enough.

The weekend starts Thursday night. Sunday is a regular workday.

Milk comes in soft plastic bags that are inserted into hard plastic jugs to pour. Packages of whole milk are blue and packages of skim milk are red.

There are no closets in most Israeli apartments and dressers are rare. Clothing is stored in armoires, called aronot.

It’s not at all unusual for an Israeli home not to have a television. And there are many fewer televisions in public places than in the US.

Office supplies are different. Important papers are stored in plastic sleeves and then in 2-ring binders. File cabinets are hard to find. Although you can find spiral notebooks, the standard Israeli school notebooks are softcovered and stapled together. And the standard size paper in Israel is not 8 ½ x 11. It’s A4 size, which is slightly longer.

Before a holiday, the electronic signs on public buses flash Chag Sameach (Happy Holiday). Soda bottles also have holiday greetings printed on the labels.

Bus drivers decorate their buses with stuffed animals and flags from their favorite sports teams.

You can always tell what holiday is coming by what’s on sale at the grocery store.

Area codes start with a 0 and there is no standard way of writing phone numbers. 05-56692-772 is the same as 055-669-2772 which is the same as 05566-9-2772 or 0556692772.

There is an intermission in the middle of movies and they can come in the middle of a scene.

Dates are written DDMMYY instead of MMDDYY.

Businesses and public service offices, like post offices and pharmacies, can have different hours every day of the week and may close for a few hours in the afternoon.

Every citizen carries a small blue plastic folder with a set of national identity papers. The Israeli ID number is used for every official transaction.

Pizzas are served with flat pieces of cardboard to use as plates.

During Chanukah, the lights of the menorah are lit in or just outside of private homes, businesses and office buildings. And starting at least a month before Chanukah, Israeli donuts, called sufganiot, are for sale everywhere.

If you keep kosher, you can go on vacation anywhere in Israel without having to pack food.

In Jerusalem, there is a siren 40 minutes before Shabbat, to warn everyone that Shabbat is coming.

At 5:55 AM, the radio broadcasts the first paragraph of the Shema prayer. On at least one station, that day’s page of Talmud, studied by tens of thousands of Jews all over the world, is announced.

On Yom Kippur, except for emergency vehicles, the streets are completely empty of cars. In some communities, children ride bikes down the middle of the empty streets.

Grocery stores cover up their chametz with huge plastic sheets during the week of Passover.

Traffic circles are much more common in residential communities than traffic lights. And the traffic circles are often decorated with a theme.

It’s not at all unusual to live in Israel without a car. And grocery stores deliver.

Every neighborhood has a small, privately owned grocery store.

Jewish holidays are national holidays. And December 25 is an ordinary day.

There’s solar heated hot water most of the year.

You can wear flip flops to any social event, even weddings.

Shop clerks, bank tellers and taxi drivers who don’t appear to be religious will say Baruch Hashem (Thank God) and quote from the Bible.

There’s a sign on the bus, taken from the book of Vayikra (Leviticus), encouraging people to “rise before an elderly person”. On crowded buses, people will get up and offer their seat to an elderly person.

It’s common to see Israeli soldiers in uniform ordering a falafel, or riding a bus or shopping for furniture.

On Friday afternoon, the radio announcer reminds everyone the name of that week’s Torah reading and what time Shabbat candle lighting is.

Everything in the cafeteria in IKEA is kosher.

There are announcements over the loudspeaker that a minyan is gathering for the afternoon or evening service in local supermarkets. And if nightfall is rapidly approaching, men will pull over on the highway to pray the afternoon service before it gets too dark.

With the right frame of mind, everyday moments in Israel can be intense, raw… and unspeakably precious.

Originally Posted on 08/18/2015 by Rivkah Lambert Adler in Israel


In 2010, Dr. Rivkah Lambert Adler made aliyah from Baltimore. She currently lives in Ma’ale Adumim, just east of Jerusalem. On September 11, 2001, she became passionate about the Land of Israel and the Final Redemption, about which she has been writing, speaking and teaching ever since. She also enjoys writing about women and Judaism and about making aliyah. She has a Ph.D. from the University of Maryland.