How to Wait in Line Like an Israeli

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?


  1. Oh, this is so recognizable.

    In the supermarket I used to go to, a soldier would sometimes walk pass the line and just walk up to the counter...as if soldiers have special privileges. And being a tame European who until recently had never held a gun in his hands, the machine gun was a little too intimating to start an argument with him. The first time it happened I was absolutely stunned; such chutzpah; but after a while you get used to it.

    waiting "lines" at the bus: try taking a bus from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem (or vice versa) around 7-7.30 in the morning, around 5-6 in the afternoon, or the last bus on friday...

  2. Well, as an Israeli I can tell you that number 5 isn't completely accurate. If it's a short line, then people just go one after the other. If it's a longer line, then people might get a little pushier, but they'll usually let the elders pass (and help out a woman with a carriage if there is one).

    There is definitely more social interaction between the people who are standing in line. Your chances of being asked whether a specific bus had already left or when your turn is are pretty high. A person could be wearing rags or looking wealthy and it wouldn't matter, since Israelis see each other as fairly equal and they feel like they can approach practically anyone.

  3. I recently heard a joke: What is an Israeli's second important limb?
    Their left elbow....
    Nice post!

  4. The lack of line standing ethics is just another example of the lack of consideration and respect Israelis have towards one another. Everyone deserves to be first, everyone feels more important than everyone else. I'm sorry but I don't find it cute. I've seen on a regular basis people who were standing first in line for the 480 (TA-Jerusalem) ending up missing bus after bus because they didn't have the right elbow work. Who were they? The weaker, politer, non-confrontational people. I find the lack of empathy and the fact that they are taken advantage of to be, well, pretty disgusting.

    Of course, the same mentality applies on the road and is the main reason we have such high fatality rates on our roads. And again, as a born and raised Israeli, I don't find it cute or quirky or anything of the sort. Israelis are generally pretty rushed and stressed out? Yes, this is one of the main reasons - we feel we can get stabbed in the back at any given moment. This is an unhealthy state for a society.

  5. I don't know Doron... I think I see what K says more than what you say. It seems to me that most Israelis are pretty caring towards each other... while Americans will stick to "order" and ignore each other, Israelis are more than willing to help out when someone needs it. I do see a lot of what you say, though, particularly the vicious cycle of feeling rushed and stressed out because otherwise you'll get left behind/stabbed in the back.

  6. I've been here for 10 years now, and this is the thing that makes me the most crazy. I find it quite tiring that I have to constantly be "on guard" when all I want to do is buy an ice cream cone for my kids. A few weeks ago, I took a number at the post office. There were about 15 people ahead of me, and it's a very small and cramped branch so most of the line stood outside. I dropped back a bit to watch a match in the Australian open at a kiosk 10 feet away until it was my turn - seriously 20 minutes. When my number came up people started yelling at me - "where have you been all this time" and "oh, she's gone to shop while we have to sit here and suffer". I just told them that that's the point of a number system and walked up to the counter. Maybe the fact that I was able to laugh about it with the clerk shows that I have become a bit more Israeli... I have to agree with Doron, that being stressed or rushed means that you need to be rude and inconsiderate. Are Tel Avivim more stress out than Manhattanites? I don't think so.

    Anyway, like the blog Maya. Fun to watch you discover your new home!


  7. I was once at the post office when I guy walked in 10 minutes after closing to claim his spot in the middle of the line. When the clerk said he would not be served he called the branch manager and she called the police. After the clerk told the manager the man would not be served he returned to 'his' spot in line. He didn't leave until the police called to say they were on their way.

  8. Well,I'll be honest, I'm that obnoxious person that doesn't let someone cut in front of me if they have a few items, especially if I've been waiting longer than 15 minutes. I actually once got a response when I declined this request as "Uch, these Israelis!" by a Hebrew speaking woman. Go figure.

    Line waiting is tough and I don't think I'm obliged to let everyone through because they have a few items. It's really the store's fault for not having enough kupaiot on staff, but I'm not responsible for that. If it's literally a loaf of bread, i probably will and certainly if it's an older or disabled person I would. But if you only have 10-15 items and I have 20-30?. Sorry, you're out of luck. I try to be helpful and direct pple to express checkout.

  9. Hi, I read the article in Jpost about you and started reading your blog. My husband and I are Israelis who grew up in Canada,but your insight takes me back every time I read an entry. Keep up the great writing!

  10. Maya, this post is great! I think I adapted pretty well to the elbow-use after living in Manhattan, but now when I go back, I'm amazed to see a line of people waiting to board a city bus.

    Israelis are pretty territorial in general, so the same goes for their place in line. I don't see it as a function of being stressed or in a hurry, though. And I certainly don't think it's an intentional "I deserve to be first more than you do." People just live here on survival mode, which means looking out for yourself first, but being quick to help others who are struggling, for the "good of the group."

    My favorite line story is when I was waiting in a line of about 10 cars to turn left into a mall parking garage. Cars would pass on the left, occasionally, but they would continue straight. One woman passed everyone and then attempted to turn into the garage in front of everyone. The security guard was this cute, tiny Ethiopian guy, who looked like he wouldn't be able to hold his own against a fly. Well, he refused to open the gate, the woman was screaming it would be faster for everyone just to let her through, but he would calmly say that wasn't the point, that there was a line, and she had to go back. Finally she zoomed off, with all the drivers in the line cheering. I was the next one in line (the one who had to slam on her brakes as this woman tried to cut in) and was able to laugh with the now-heroic guard about her.

  11. great post and bring back many, many memories from my time in israel! i love where things start to blend and you "forget" what's israeli-ish and what just is (too close, etc). to be honest, i've never thought of the "full attention" angle-- good point!

  12. Reading this makes me surprised that supermarket gunfights don't break out!

  13. i like this post and all the comments.So real,but i miss the"people who belong to a "group"........."the pushed every body in the
    line away.loud yelling ï belong to that group in front of the line....And most of the times there is a group,but nobody knows the yelling "member",and nobody asked a question about it.

  14. I've been here for 14 years. Sometimes I let someone with one or two items ahead of me in the super. It really depends on who they are and how I feel that day. If they are old, ill, have only a few items, have a bunch of cranky kids or seem really rushed, I'll let them in front of me. If it's a healthy looking middle aged hutzapan(it) person, I'll tell them there is a line for 10 items or less. They know that already, but it's a polite way of saying no.

    I almost always ask a solder in uniform who is at the end of the line if he "wants" to go ahead of me, then I ask all the people before him if it's OK. No one ever has the nerve to say no. The soldiers should have special privileges. They are putting their life on the line to protect us. Just about everyone should understand that.

    Fast forward to my vacation in America. I was always asking people if they are in line, They looked at me as if I'm stupid and said it is obvious that they are. Well, they were standing 10 feet from the person in front of them. It sure doesn't seem to me as if they are in line. I was always told I'm standing way to close when I was 3 feet from the person in front of me. "Hello", I'm 3 whole feet away from you. There is space for 2 more people between us.


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