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Yehuda Leichman enjoys a snack of chickpeas. Abigail Klein Leichman

A smile lit up our 17-month-old grandson’s face upon glimpsing his new sister, sleeping pinkly in her bassinet at Hadassah-Ein Kerem Hospital in Jerusalem. But his expression turned to utter delight when he spotted the salad bar in the new mothers’ dining room. A true sabra, Yehuda inhales olives and chickpeas by tiny fistfuls.

Abetted by Savti (yours truly), he was on the verge of depleting the olive tray when a nurse announced loudly – not to anyone in particular, though we were the only visitors there at the moment – that all visitors must leave the patient dining area at once.

Aliyah DiaryThe arrival of my grandchildren has given me a more personal perspective on what it means to be a sabra. The term has been used since the founding of the state to describe a typical Israeli – the brave, assertive post-ghetto “new Jew” named for the native cactus pear (tzabar, in Hebrew). This fruit is thick and thorny on the outside but soft and sweet on the inside.

As of this year, it’s estimated that about four million Israeli Jews (70 percent of the population) are sabras, the majority of whom are – like Yehuda and baby Elisheva – age 18 and under. Our government is headed by the first sabra prime minister in Israel’s history.

Back in heady post-1967 days, the sabra was immortalized by cartoonist Dosh as “Srulik,” a lithe young kibbutznik wearing that signature sunhat called a “kova tembel.” As my mother noted on her recent visit here, you don’t see kova tembels anymore except on a few clueless tourists. If Dosh were to update the image, it would probably be a caricature of a suit-clad Tel Aviv high-tech exec named Tal with a shaven head, rimless glasses, and a diamond stud in one earlobe.

But if Srulik is no longer, is there really still such a thing as a sabra? Is a female sabra different from a male sabra (and is she called a Sabrett, like the hot dog)?

Israel has always been a stewpot of cultures and nationalities. It may have been absurd from the get-go to stereotype a rugged farmer of Eastern European ancestry as the quintessential sabra when so many native Israeli Jews are scholars, entrepreneurs, and scientists of Yemenite, Syrian, Moroccan, Persian, Ethiopian, and other extractions. Add to that a new generation of the offspring of North American immigrants, and it’s hard to make a case for a “typical” Israeli.

And yet … somehow this ethnic hodge-podge has yielded a uniquely sabra culture, culinary and behavioral. Like our grandson Yehuda, most native Israelis display a fondness for olives, chickpeas (and their ground version, hummus), sunflower seeds, eggplant, tomatoes, and cucumbers. Not to mention char-roasted meat. They are born not with a silver spoon in their mouths, but with a plastic grill fanner in their hands to coax the briquettes along.

Israeli drivers are not known for their patience. Israeli marketplace merchants have an aggressive reputation. You don’t want to cross Israeli mothers, who are at once fiercely tough and astonishingly tender. Israeli grandparents will literally give you the food out of their shopping bags on the bus. And you’d best not refuse a bite.

Israeli schoolchildren are notoriously rambunctious, perhaps owing to the traditional classroom snack of white bread smeared with chocolate spread. By the time they are 3, these tots have universally mastered a unique one-shouldered shrug and head dip that says “I am not going to do what you just asked me to do.”

Long ago, an Israeli mother explained to me that sabra children tend to be indulged because their parents realize their lives could be cut short, God forbid, through terrorism or military service. Though it may seem paradoxical, this is also why they are reared to be much more independent than American children. By the time they get to the army, most of them could already navigate their way out of a desert because they’ve hiked deserts so often with their peers.

I suppose the realities of life in the Middle East do help mold a decidedly bold personality – sometimes brash, sometimes chutzpahdik, always passionate and sweet on the inside. Reared by American-born parents, will my sabra (and Sabrett) grandkids display these traits as they mature? Time will tell. For now, I have learned always to keep cans of olives and chickpeas in the pantry for when little sabras visit.