When I was younger, I used to play a game with my sister. It was unofficially called the Ugg Game. The rules were simple: When you see a woman wearing the infamous suede boots with fur lining, try and determine if they are real or fake. (Real ones say Ugg on the back. Fake ones are usually plain on the back.) It was fairly easy to play the game. Walking around New York City in the winter or even at school — almost everyone had Uggs (or fakes). When we moved to Israel four years ago the game became a little more difficult. For one reason — almost no one had Uggs (real or fake). So the game grew out of our repertoire. Until last week, that is.
It was raining outside. Bitterly cold, windy, rainy, and wet. We were walking (on Shabbat) to lunch at the home of some family friends. It was a relatively long walk. And on the way the Ugg Game made a triumphant return. We saw girls, young married women, and older grandmothers all wearing Uggs—real ones. As you might know, Uggs get soggy and stained in the rain. Apparently, however, the thing to do around here is to wear Uggs in cold weather, rain or shine.
Israel is going through a major change: Westernization, Americanization, globalization, call it whatever you want. In other words, people around here wear Uggs. They sport shoes from Nike and Nine West (or from Payless Shoes); Adidas shorts; jeans from Gap; polos from Tommy Hilfiger, Nautica, and Ralph Lauren; shirts and skirts from H&M; coats and sweatshirts from North Face; and skimpy T-shirts from American Apparel and Forever 21. All of these iconic brands have stores in Israel. But plenty of other American brands are well-represented in this country, even though they aren’t sold here. Gone is the Israeli wardrobe of yore—the cotton v-neck shirts, the Teva sandals with black socks, the too-short sweatpants, and khakis.
Obviously, these trendy fashion options come at a steep price. A man’s shirt from H&M costs $9.95 in America or about 38 shekels. In Israel the same shirt retails for 59.90 NIS (shekels). Fifty dollar (189 NIS) Gap jeans sell for 299 NIS in Israel. Three hundred NIS, or $79, is considered cheap for a basic Nike or New Balance sneaker. Payless Shoes, however, claims that their prices are identical to those in America with added VAT (a consumption tax). Forever 21 advertises reasonable prices too (115 NIS or $30 for a pair of jeans). My 9-year-old cousin recently purchased Uggs in Israel, at a store in Mamilla Mall in Jerusalem.“Well, they’re more expensive here but we couldn’t find the kind I wanted in America, so we bought them here,” she said. How much more expensive? Ugg boots, I’ve been informed, can sometimes cost around 1,000 NIS a pair here, or $263 USD. The same boots typically retail for around $180 in America.
I remember when I first got to Israel more than four years ago I carried a clunky Dell laptop with Windows 98. I remember bringing it to school once and my classmates were amazed that I had a laptop. Many owned only one computer in their home; I had five. It wasn’t because we were rich or snobby. It was because we were American—my parents had laptops for work, my siblings each had one for school, and we had a desktop that we left in the United States.
Today, that’s all changed. Almost all of my classmates have their own laptops. Some are even more expensive than mine. Practically everyone has iPods or at least mp3s. And no, they're not listening to old Zionist tunes or slow love songs in Hebrew. They’re listening to the latest songs from Beyoncé, Adele, and Taio Cruz. The majority of my grade has smartphones. Many have iPhones; iPads and tablets are becoming increasingly popular, although they have yet to become the norm.
Even the quintessential Israeli cuisine has changed. Next to every falafel and shwarma stand is a pizza place, some featuring better pizza than J-2 in New York. And next to those pizza places are hamburger joints offering “American style” burgers. New York delis are popping up everywhere. I have met Israelis who don’t eat hummus and despise techina. Supermarkets and makolets offer American products from Herr’s potato chips to Duncan Hines mixes to ShopRite cranberry sauce and Paskez candies. Reeses, Hershey’s, Nature Valley granola bars, and Gushers (once rare in Israel) are now easily procured. Granted, these items are about double the price in Israel.
Of course, if you haven’t been to Israel recently and expect to see a mini-America there after reading this article, you won’t. The older generation will look exactly as you remember them. Out on the kibbutzim and out of the center of Israel, I’m sure you’ll find people wearing sandalim, with cargo shorts and white cloth shirts. You’ll find people who have never heard of Gushers or Beyoncé. People who use regular cell phones and send emails with a decade-old computer.
I’m not sure if Israel is headed in the right direction with the Westernization. Do we really want to breed spoiled, materialistic children like those in America who “need” all the latest gadgets and fashions? Do we really want high school students to spend hundreds of shekels on Gap jeans when they could get a pair from some Israeli store for far less? I think not.
On the other hand, do we want to stay in a time warp and preserve the third world country ambiance? To block out modernity and technology in favor of more traditional items? I think not. The solution is to find a balance between the two. To allow for Westernization, but to preserve that beloved Israeliness.
American-style corned beef in a pita with hummus? Sounds good to me.