Israeli teen culture

I’m back in the States, but I’m not yet back on sturdy ground. It’s been a rough month and it’s going to take some time before I’m ready to re-engage properly. Thankfully, time in Israel really helped me do some well-needed thinking.

What I love most about leaving the United States is how it lets me re-consider the American norms that I take for granted living here day in and day out. All that’s on my brain these days is teenagers so I couldn’t help but watch Israeli teens. This wasn’t hard because teenagers were everywhere (and there was one living in the house in which I was staying). While I have to go looking for teens in American public settings, teens were often within view in public places in Israel.

Israeli teens do not have the same restrictions that American teens have. There don’t seem to be curfews, except those that are imposed by parents. (When I asked about whether cops hound teens, I was told that the cops in Israel have more important matters to attend to.)

I was totally fascinated by how many teens were wandering the streets, hanging out in parks, or BBQ-ing on the beach past midnight each night. They were on the beach, in the malls, and generally around all day and night. Adults tended to be nearby but the packs of teens were free to goof around with each other with little explicit control.

In Ra’anana (a suburb of Tel Aviv), there was a big park. Teens from across the town gathered there every night. At 1AM, the cinema in the park opened its doors for local teens to watch a movie for 10 shekels and free popcorn. The only restriction was that they had to have an ID that said they were from Ra’anana. There were all sorts of activities in the park – video games, a playground, etc. Late at night, you could see teens walking in groups from the park towards home (long after their parents were sleeping). They were just goofing around with their friends and no one seemed to mind.

Even though I saw teens everywhere, I saw little evidence of heavy drinking. (Of course, I didn’t see a lot of heavy drinking amongst adults either.) There were certainly hookahs and my nostrils gave me the sense that it wasn’t just tobacco that people were smoking. For the most part, teens seemed far more interested in goofing off with their friends.

Teens weren’t that visible in the settings where payment was necessary. For example, I didn’t see teens at the bars/cafes on the beach or in the clubs on the pier where the average age seemed to be mid-20s. My suspicion is that teens prefer the public spaces because they are free.

I have no idea how accurate my observations are but it was pleasantly refreshing to see teens everywhere out and about. And for that matter, adults. Venice Beach is eerie late at night and I don’t dare go down there except with a pack of male friends. And even then… Tel Aviv’s beaches were a different story. There were crowds everywhere until sunrise. Even on weekdays. Everything was well-lit, cafes all had outdoor seating, and wandering the promenades seemed to be a popular dating activity. God that was nice to see.

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30 thoughts on “Israeli teen culture

  1. Tim

    Ahh.. the beauty of monoculture. Plato had it right in The Republic. Fear, fragmentation, isolation – right now America is pluralistic society at its worst.

  2. Sam Jackson

    My bff Israeli dormmate from school would go on for ages about the beaches of Tel Aviv, where he lives… I had really hoped to visit him this summer. He goes to the IDF for 3 years on the 22nd.


  3. jenks

    yup. that’s totally accurate. i lived in israel when i was 18, and that’s totally the way it goes. israel’s a place that is perpetually being created and recreated for the next generation. the children have always been the “future” there in a much more profound way than the “investment” they are seen as here.

    when i was there, it was right after columbine, and to my cousins, who were all my age at the time 17-19, it was the most bizarre thing. it was like a freak natural accident, like katrina or something, that plagued u.s. schools. they had no idea what could possibly create an environment where that could happen (being a socialist country helps the confusion). they all kept asking me if i was scared to go to school because i might get shot.

    i asked them if they were scared to get on the bus cuz it might explode.

    it’s hard to compare the standards of a culture where pretty much all 18 year olds have had to serve in the army to those of a culture where the toughest decision 18 year olds have to make is what college to chose to skip calsses at.

  4. Dima

    I tend to agree with your observation based on an opposite one. When i moved from Israel to the States, the restrictions posed on teenagers really stood out. From talking to people studying with me i learned that it is indeed widespread. And frankly speaking, I don’t remember seeing/hearing about such restrictions in European countries as well. Interesting…

    As to drinking, i haven’t had a chance to observe teenagers drinking a lot, but definitely among the college students the equation “getting drunk = having fun” seems to work most of the time. I don’t know, maybe it is too hot in Israel for drinking? 🙂

  5. Macthomson

    I discovered Apophenia when tipped regarding the FaceBook/MySpace post. This I found fascinating; for me it opened an entirely fresh perspective on the subject.

    Now again I am amazed to have a new issue to ponder over. I was a teen in the United States for about five years, a long time ago. It had, frankly, never occurred to me that today American teenagers no longer have the freedoms my generation enjoyed.

    Jenks describes a land “that is perpetually being created and recreated for the next generation” and that also applies to the country I have called home for the past five years, the United Arab Emirates.

    So is it a matter of America regimenting and restricting its teens, possibly out of concern for their protection?

    Or have the kids migrated to metaverses in order to enjoy in virtual worlds the freedoms the real world no longer offers?

  6. Sharon

    I lived in Tel Aviv all my life (apart from a year in Australia) and I think your observations are pretty much spot-on. As teens, my friends and I roamed the streets till the early hours of the morning during school breaks.. walking for hours, because we had better things to spend our money on rather than taxis. Money wasn’t an issue – or rather, not having much of it – because there’s plenty to do that isn’t expensive; free beach side cinema, music shows at the port, open late night markets and more.

    Don’t get me wrong, there are bad people here too and kids are warned not to go alone with strangers.. it’s not all lovey-dovey perfect obviously.

    I think there’s one main reason for it:
    Life is valued, and living life to the full is appreciated. Deep down, parents know that these high school years are the time to enjoy, because afterwards you go to the army and god only knows what’ll happen there. The concept of college as it exists in the US doesn’t exist here. By the time you get to uni, you’re older than an American counterpart: you spent your time in the army, you usully worked hard to save up for a long trip abroad and you were away for a while. Basically, you’re already in your early to mid 20s and that changes your outlook on things.

    That really makes high school years the last stress free time (not an exact choise of words, I know.. let’s say adult-stree free..).

    Plus, the fact that Israelis just loooove to group together (that’s true at any age – just see them abroad) is a bit more relaxing in the eye of a parent, I think. You’re hardly ever alone as a teen.

    And Israelis do drink, only later in life and not to an excess most of the time. Everyone loves a cold beer on a steamy day at the beach, or a couple of pints at the pub, but this is it. Maybe this is why teens don’t feel it proves they are grown ups. Teens in Israel don’t really want to be a grown ups. They just have a great time being kids.

  7. Randy

    dana I lived in Israel for a year from 1996 – 1997 and at the time I was 18. ten years ago the culture was exactly the same. It was so wonderful. When I taught high school English there the kids would invite me out to parties at midnight on Saturday night. No drinks, just friends playing games and making fun of each other. Kids being kids – not obsessed about being perfect and getting into the right schools and acting years older than they are (parental pressure).

    One of my favorite moments in Israel was also one of the most frightening. We arrived at a bus station to wait for our friend Yoav. He took the early bus and was waiting. The bus he was supposed to be on was destroyed by a bomb. It was hard to understand as an American, but after a few months there you begin to appreciate life and stop being concerned with the minutia that seems to make us so unhappy here. The mentality is love life truly and deeply for you never know when it may end. In reality a lot of people have transcended the fear of attack, accepted it as part of life, and have moved forward towards appreciating that happiness it is precious and fleeting and should be savored.

  8. Michael Clarke

    Hmm. There’s an elephant in the room here (the commenter who mentioned a ‘monoculture’ was close) but I guess it would be rude to point it out.

    Other than that, why is it that life is lived with such fear in countries where, in reality, there is comparatively little chance of it being taken away as opposed to the ferocity of cultures or sub-cultures where the reverse is the case?

  9. Lauren

    I spent 6 months in France at a Technical University and spent a decent amount of time talking to European students about drinking in the US and in Europe.

    In France, the drinking age is much lower than the US, though the driving age is much higher. It seemed most people would have their first experiences with more than a drink or two while drinking at home, in their teens, where their parents could still take care of them/add some element of safety and security. If parents in the US provide this “safe” experience – making sure kids don’t get sick/don’t drive/etc they can face huge legal repercussions. My experience was definitely that more people in the US drink to get drunk, while Europeans tend to drink as part of the experience – getting drunk is not the objective. Alcohol is just another drink there – an about as costly as a soda.

  10. Michael Clarke

    And I guess the UK’s appalling binge drinking culture is sufficiently notorious to most of you. It gets thoroughly embedded in your teens. You can trace it back over the centuries too – think Hogarth, Prince Harry in Shakespeare, the incessant feasting in Beowulf…I look over the channel at the sensible drinking culture in France with great envy.

  11. Sam Jackson

    Oh, slight note- living in Newton, MA which is usually top 5 safest city in the nation (we were #1 last year, as measured by self reporting FBI violent crime stats) my friends and I are happy to go out late at night and just hang out, walk around, whatever. No nightlife to speak of, so not the same, but hey. Now, when we go into Boston… that’s a slightly different story : )

  12. Marc

    Interesting notes on teens in Israel. I’m currently in Tokyo for a month, and am living between Shibuya and Harajuku, two major teen hangouts. The lifestyles of Japanese teens is quite different from those of Americans. On a whole, the fashion standard in these neighborhoods is incredibly high, you must dress to impress everyday. Kids dress in Victorian garb, steam punk, gothic, raver, and every which way in between. Although there are no parents in sight, and police don’t hound them, they are far from unruly. Social space is well respected. They are out at all hours, but since Tokyo is generally safe, there isn’t much concern.

  13. gilgul

    You have to remember that you were lucky to visit Israel at a relatively good time. But even though the “situation” (as we love to call it in Hebrew – hamatzav) can change fast, there is always this strong sense in Israel that life must go on. Even in the more difficult times, you’d be able to spot kids hanging out in the streets. It goes against this culture to stay home because of fear.

    Indeed what I loved about growing up in Israel was the variety of available FREE public spaces. And even though my town was relatively religious (=> nothing open between friday afternoon until sat. evening), we always found ways to keep busy, if in parks, or on the beach.

    But life is not presented on a silver platter here. It can be stressful and harsh – especially for those who follow the news (escapism=very popular!). It is easy to forget that when on a short summer visit. But I often wonder if people in the US can learn from the social norms and behaviors in Israel. If culturally, it is viable for Americans to drop their fear, and start trusting each other, or even their government.

  14. Uzi Shmilovici

    Hi Danah.

    I was present in the upgrade event. I was really surprised to suddenly see you there. Your talk was fascinating. (BTW – can I get the slides somewhere?).

    Your point on Israeli teens is accurate. I believe it has much to do with the sense of security that the teens have here. It is pretty usual from them to get home at 3-4 AM without fear. The streets are safe.

    Also, I think it is a part of the Israeli culture that tends to face to face interactions (or at least voice ones…). I think it’s a good explanation why it’s hard for social networks to succeed here.


  15. Yoav

    I never noticed these differences, but I’ll take your word for it. I lived in Israel ages 0-28, and probably haven’t thought about teens much during my time in the states, living in a small southern town for the past 2 years.

    For Israelis with conscious the “elephant in the room” mentioned by Michael Clarke is apparent and painful. It’s like if a blogger, 30 years ago, would write about the great life that white South African teens have. You were a guest there, and that’s cool, you have done nothing wrong, and nor did these teens. But the Arab or conscious Israeli reader can’t help but read your post through these lens and feel some bitterness, shame or guilt.

  16. Megan

    You know, I couldn’t agree more with your very first sentence.

    “What I love most about leaving the United States is how it lets me re-consider the American norms that I take for granted living here day in and day out.”

    We are so US-centric that we have no idea that life is different in other countries.

    I live a few hours from the Canadian border and I am in love with immersing myself in its culture. Imagine how amazing it was to step off the continent and absorb my very first cross-continental cultural divide!

    What I’d love to do is pick different parts of my favorite cultures and make my own little world.

    Amazing writing! You really hit the nail on the head!

  17. Bertil

    What you describe is pretty much what I see in Paris everyday, and what friends around Europe have descibed to me; I really don’t think it’s about monoculture because, with tourists, the nationality sample is all over the place here. The main difference is the schedule: public transports are greatly reduced at 1AM so the hotspots are generally quiet then. I assume with the bike system set up last Sunday by the town-hall, this could change this summers. The only safety concern seems to be if you are a girl, and I never seen anyone who isn’t offered to be walked back home–we even have a name for that: “Taxi Basket”.

    You’ve always said you would only consider American youth (and I discovered wonders thanks to you) but you suprise, and the sticking intensity of the common American belief that their teenage dramas are universal truly makes me wonder.

  18. Ilya Lichtenstein

    I’m in Venice for the summer, and I find Venice Beach to be not scary at all- but maybe that’s because I’m a guy and have little common sense. In fact, I see more teens on Venice Beach at all times of day than I have ever seen anywhere in my hometown in the Midwest.

    I have several friends who have been to Israel, and they all report that people there are out and about a lot more in general-and I assume pedestrian travel is more popular- it was always a bit of culture shock for them to return to the empty streets of suburbia.

    In any case traveling has an opposite effect for me- it shows me that, cultural appearances and facades aside, we are all similar in so many ways, and share so many identical human needs- like the need for company or space to be yourself.

  19. zephoria

    Regarding the “elephant in the room”: In Tel Aviv, I saw both Hebrew and Arabic-speaking teens out and about. One night, I was surprised to see a huge group that appeared to be multiple Arab families out and playing on a playground by the beach at night. There were children and teens running around, men were talking in one area and women gathered on blankets in another area.

    I am writing here about what I observed, primarily in Tel Aviv and Ra’anana. These are both primarily Hebrew speaking, although I did hear some Arabic in Tel Aviv. I cannot speak to all of Israel or Palestine or broader Arabic Israeli culture. I cannot speak to all of the cultural forces at play. Israeli teens do not have the same restrictions as American teens. That does not mean that they don’t have other restrictions. Many have told me that Arab Israelis lack the same freedoms as Jewish Israelis. I believe them but this isn’t what I was marking. What I’m marking is the difference between US (where there’s lots of fear and little reason to be afraid) and Israel (where it appears to be the opposite).

    Don’t take this as a discussion of Israel or Israeli politics so much as a reminder that the rest of the world does not look like United States when it comes to restrictions on public life.

  20. Will Warner

    I always look at cultural differences through a lens of public policy, and I think the lack of teens in American public spaces is largely a consequence of the public spaces all being either stuck in suburban sprawl with no public transportation, where teens without cars are stranded at home, or in places like Venice Beach in Los Angeles. Voters and politicians have chosen to deprive potential American hangouts of the police to keep them safe, janitors to keep them clean, lighting, and any place to pee at 3am besides the bushes. (Incidentally, the police are really mostly just needed to bring them from unsafe to safe. Once they are safe and have a large number of ordinary non-violent citizens around at all hours and ready to help someone or call 911, they need fewer cops.) Culture determines policy just as policy determines culture, but I really love concrete statements about what we do badly that other places do well, and how to fix that with specific policy changes, rather than general statements about changing culture.

    Michael Clarke, I think you’ll find the willingness to accept risk is largely a function of age, not culture or subculture. American parents don’t lock down their kids because they’re more protective of them than Israeli parents, but rather because American parents, unlike Israel, Japan, France, and most other cultures, have chosen to withdraw from public space. It’s more a function of Americans’ rabid independence than their fear.

    As to a monoculture, there is an old, ugly, and seldom openly discussed claim, especially in the American South, that sharing resources like the ones mentioned above depends on some system to keep out people you don’t want to share with– Palestinians in Israel, poor blacks here. Its adherents even seem sometimes to glorify it more because it is an unpleasant idea, seldom openly discussed and sure to provoke outrage, as if it were secret knowledge of government corruption in Stalinist Russia. First, I think that like most elephants in the room, this needs to be discussed, not politely ignored, even though it will start fights. Second, I simply don’t believe it. The crucial difference between the idea that Stalin’s government was corrupt, and the idea that all communities are equally and inevitably guilty of segregation, is that the former is true and the latter is false. Look at Vancouver, Berlin, or London, all of which are quite diverse, yet more welcoming, more tolerant, and share more public resources than any city in America. No city is without racial and cultural tension, but that doesn’t mean that every city is as bad as Johannesburg in the 1980s or LA today. Americans have been sharing water fountains for forty years, we’ve been increasing how much we share government power and public spaces as well, we can certainly continue those improvements, we should, and I believe we will.

    On to the question of Israel and Palestine. Henry Kissinger once said, in reference to this issue, “You Americans, you’re all engineers. You think that all the world’s problems are puzzles that can be solved with money and materiel. You are wrong. All of the world’s great problems are not problems at all. They are dilemmas, and dilemmas cannot be solved. They can only be survived.” Perhaps it’s only because I am, in fact, an engineer, but I disagree. I continue to believe that the war between Israel and Palestine, just like the American Civil War or Apartheid in South Africa, can and will be changed to peace.

    Finally, a quick note on binge drinking. I can’t pin that on any particular public policy. Alcohol has been legal for many decades, so I’d say a failure to teach kids how to drink moderately is a purely cultural and social failure. I’m guessing it’s a matter of whether kids learn about alcohol and its effects secondhand before adolescence, and whether they ever see adults around them drinking responsibly and moderately. The problem’s hardly unique to the US, either– anecdotally, there’s more excessive drinking each step from France to England to Scotland to Australia. Unfortunately, I can’t talk about the subject with much neutrality. Anything I say drips smugness over the fact that I went to college at the University of Texas and barely drank at all, and never vomited or blacked out, even though I know many of my most smart, capable friends did so every few weeks.

  21. jenks

    was just finishing “can’t stop won’t stop: a history of the hiphop generation” after i read this post. towards the end of the book jeff chang talks about how the 80’s “war on gangs” and “war on drugs” evolved into the 90’s and now’s “war on youth.” perhaps part of the answer to the differences in the ways that the US and israel treats their kids is in the legacy of american race politics. a particular history which israel doesn’t share.

  22. Annie

    I’ve spent my entirely life in the US, and lived my teenage years close to the city.

    I find this outlook intriguing. While I spent my teenage years crashing college parties, working, and breaking curfew, one of my closest friends was living in Israeli. He had come to visit while we were both 16, and I don’t believe he was used to American teenage life. His plans once he returned to Israel made me jealous…camping on the beach for a week with his peers, unsupervised. I couldn’t even imagine an outing like such. My first vacation without my family didn’t happen until I was already in college.

    I feel as if American teenagers turn to drinking to push the boundaries. Since drinking is so set here for the age of 21, doing so before had is a type of rebellion. American teenagers are known to rebel. No one cares for limitations.

    If given the opportunity to get trashed at my friend’s house at 4AM or camp on the beach with all my friends, alcohol free, I’d chose the latter. It’s unfortunate that American teenagers lack the freedom of youth.

  23. azik

    I’m from israel. I grew up outside of Tel aviv in a suburb similar to Ra’anana. I think your observations are quite accurate.
    Formal restrictions on teenagers is an unknown concept to me (The only one I can think of is the restriction of buying alcohol or cigarets under 18, which is not really enforced).
    The organized activities in the park are usually done to prevent the teens from making noise when their gathering in the street during the summer vacation (which just started). The teens gather everywhere, street corner, kids playground and such.
    There is drinking among the teens, I think it’s not done near the adults.
    for Michael: yes there is a big elephant. I’m not sure about the answer to your question, I think there is some amount of fear here and I’m not really sure about the actual chance of being taken away.
    Last summer, during the war, I hosted in my Tel aviv flat teens from the north (where the war was). From the outside, they were mostly interested in goofing around with friends, although they had family in the north but they didn’t talk about it.
    I also agree with what most of the others commented on living here. It’s usually safe walking the streets at night, and about the importance of the kids in our society, especially teens before the army and the value of life in general.

  24. Adam

    I think this has a lot to do with the perception of free public spaces.

    I’m American, but have lived in Germany and spent a lot of time in other European countries. I’ve noticed that Europeans don’t think it’s “cheap” or “lame” to go for walks, hang out in parks, take a date hiking, etc.

    Here, in the States, the perceived value of free time seems to be highly correlated with the cost of that “free” time. With the exception of an enlightened / hippy / easy-going few, I can’t imagine taking dates to something that doesn’t cost money (e.g., drinks, a restaurant, etc.). Friends don’t hang out and play board games here or just chat or have potlucks or bbqs with the frequency I saw in Europe. It’s always about going to a club, or grabbing dinner at a restaurant, etc.

    And with friendship-things always revolving around things that require money, what are not-well-off teens to do? Hang out with other not-well-off-teens, I suppose. Or stay home.

    Another issue: American cities, especially most larger ones, tend to be horribly unwalkable and bike un-friendly. Most areas have few if any pedestrian streets downtown, where you can just walk along, unbothered by cars. It’s all about drive, park, get inside. Lingering is not encouraged. And it’s not “safe.”

    Not so in much of Europe. Or Montreal.

    Can you tell I’m fed up with America? For better or worse, I really like my current job. Or I’d be on the next plane to somewhere else where people live for more than the next exciting bauble or reservation at the newest trendy restaurant.

  25. Cathy Dwyer

    hi danah,
    This is in response to you blog post regarding new social networking research.

    I am presenting a paper next week on social networking sites at AMCIS, “Trust and Privacy Concern Within Social Networking Sites: A Comparison of Facebook and MySpace,
    by Catherine Dwyer,Starr Roxanne Hiltz and Katia Passerini, Proceedings of AMCIS 2007, Keystone, CO.

    The paper is here:

    I conducted a study comparing members of Facebook and MySpace. Facebook members expressed greater trust in the site and other members, and were more willing to share information in their profile. However, MySpace members reported more use of the site to meet new people. This was true even for members of MySpace that expressed low trust in the site. This seems to suggest members have some intuitive sense they apply as they evaluate people they meet on these sites, and this process is independent of privacy settings. My plan for my next study is to explore in more detail how members negotiate their privacy settings in order to both protect themselves, but also keep open channels of communication to new people they may want to meet.

  26. sam

    I moved to the states when my daughter was eleven. We had the greatest time raising our 3 kids there .Through fear of the daily bombing in early 2000,we moved back,after 10 years. I was shocked to see the jail like school systems.The police are everywhere and ready to arrest the kids on the most minor offenses.My daughter has been beaten up 3 times,the last one leaving her with stiches in her head and emotional scars far worse.We had eggs thrown at our house with jew written on each one.There is nothing for the kids to do.We are coming back the risks of raising teens here for me far outweighs the dangers of bombs and war.

  27. Elliot

    The reason you saw teens free to pursue their youth in Israel is because teens in Israel aren’t the violent type.

    The violent and agressive teens in America ruin it for everyone else.

    Unlese we reign in gangs, drugs, alcohol, and agression, no one will be in favor of unsupervised teens.

    Everyone loses.

  28. Evan

    Elliot, I must disagree. I am a teenager living in the US. To say that we are violent and aggressive is like saying that all people of African descent are in gangs. We are not violent out of malice; we are bored, confused, and restricted. We don’t know why so many adults hate and fear us, and my entire generation is slowly losing its collective mind because we can never do anything without being watched. We are discriminated against more than any other group. It’s like we are the new beatnik generation- we don’t know how, what, or why, but we know that something in society is horribly, terribly wrong. My only hope is that we can raise our children in a better environment. That said, not all adults dislike us. I know several who are disturbed by the general reaction to us. But, either due to our apathy, or due to those who made us this way, America is broken. And unless my fellow teens do something soon, it will only get worse. Much worse.

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