Contrary to popular opinion, Israelis do wait in line. We do have, shall we say, a different line-waiting etiquette, as my sister discovered when she returned to NYC after a year in Israel, shoved her way onto a bus (elbows flying)... then realized that all the other passengers were staring at her from the pavement where they stood in a polite queue. So here's a guide to how to wait in line like an Israeli.
1. Ask "mi ha'aharon"? (Who's the last?) When you come to a meat counter or post office line in Israel, ask who is last in line. It often won't be the person who is actually standing in front of you-- it may be the person off in the corner getting stamps out of a vending machine or feeding a baby. This is probably why a lot of Americans get really upset when they wait in line, because they think Israelis are cutting in front of them when, really, Israelis simply have a more casual attitude about what "standing in line" actually means.
2. If you need to step out of line, remind the person in front of you where your spot is. This was a little odd to me at first. For example, if I were in a grocery store check-out line in the US and realized I had to grab one thing off a nearby shelf, I would ask the person behind me in line if they could save my space-- the reason being that they're the person who would be disrupted when I came back. But for the exact same reason, Israelis rely on the person in front of them to save their spots. After all, why would the person behind you ever give your spot back?? That would be being a freyer! The person in front of you, on the other hand, will defend you if the person behind you complains, and Israelis do have a strongly-ingrained sense of line-standing ethics.
3. Stand really close to the person in front of you. Honestly, I'm not even sure if Israelis do this... my sense of personal space has shifted since coming here so that now I feel no compunction about nudging my shopping card actually into someone else when I try to make it down a narrow aisle in the Super. (Israelis look at me like I'm crazy if I apologize for something like that!) So the fact that Israelis don't actually touch each other in line or (mostly) breathe on each others' necks seems like plenty of space for me. But if you're an American from one of the northeastern regions, you may need to take a few steps forward. If you leave too much space in front of you, you aren't asserting your spot in line and someone may cut. (Watch out for spots in which you might think you're waiting in one line for multiple cash registers-- your body language has to be assertive for people not to cut in front of you then!)
4. Let someone else cut in front of you if you decide to, and be ready to wait for a while. Israelis are generally pretty rushed and stressed out, but for some reason they have a more relaxed attitude towards line-waiting than most Americans. If you come to a supermarket line with just a few items, Israelis with lots of items in their carts will almost always allow you to cut in front of them. Cashiers will wait for five minutes while you go back to get the third bag of shnitzel that will round out your 2 + 1 free deal. The bank teller will make four phone calls about the missing card for the guy in front of you before she looks for your checkbook. Any you know what? I actually think this is kind of nice. I like that when my time comes, the cashier will give me her full attention and let me take the time I need. So what if I wait a few extra minutes in the process. (Or, ok, a few extra hours back when we were applying for our mortgage... waiting in lines in banks is basically an all-day affair.) And definitely, complain loudly if you feel someone is taking advantage of a situation.
5. In some spots (bus stops, train stations, traffic circles, mortgage brokerages) there is no clearly-defined line, so instead you need to push your way to the front. This is where marpekim, elbows, are essential. Push your way up there!
Did I leave anything out? What have you while waiting experienced in Israeli lines?
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