How to Shrug like an Israeli (a Quick and Easy Guide to Nonverbal Hebrew)

Israelis are addicted to their cell phones, and despite this being illegal, love to talk on their cell phones while driving. This is especially terrifying because A) Israelis continue to drive like maniacs even while talking on their cell phones, and B) talking in Israel is a full body sport. I have actually seen Israelis take both hands off the wheel to gesture while driving and talking on their cell phones.

But if you want to talk like an Israeli, you'd better master the art of Israeli body language.

To assist me in this lesson, I'm going to draw examples from the PSA that a bunch of Israeli celebrities filmed to protest the 30% raise in insurance prices for scooter and motorcycle riders. My husband commutes by scooter, so he's been involved in these protests. Basically, our government is raising two-wheeled-vehicle insurance to rates higher than semi-trailer truck insurance, and many times the rates of two-wheeled-vehicle insurance in Europe. The government is delaying a decision on this insurance hike because they hope the organized movement to protest this hike will peter out. Let's hope it doesn't!

Here's the PSA (there's a little bit of crude humor in the middle, but if your Hebrew is like mine, you probably won't get that part anyway):

Now, let's break down the classic Israeli body language at play in this clip.

1. The Lip Shrug

Seen at 0:16 in the clip, the lip shrug involves pulling down the corners of the mouth and pushing up the lower lip in an exaggerated frown. Often accompanied by a slight shoulder shrug and the extension of one open hand, the lip shrug indicates, "Ani yodeah? Nu, who knows? I have no idea. Not my job. I am also slightly disgusted."

2. The Instructional Finger


Seen at 0:18, this gesture demonstrates the authority of one who DOES know. Commonly used by Polish grandparents alerting grandchildren to certain danger and drivers explaining to fellow drivers how to drive, this gesture indicates that the listener should sit up and pay rapt attention. To correctly execute the Instructional Finger, raise your hand so that your palm faces your intended target. Keep both your finger and your head erect. In one swift motion, accent a particularly cogent point with an emphatic head nod and finger point.

3. The "I Really Really Mean It" Forefinger-Thumb Touch

Seen at 0:26 (and again at 1:02, to accent the phrase "b'emet") this is perhaps the most crucial gesture for would-be Israelis to master. It indicates that what is being said is urgent, crucial, and true. To execute the "I Really Really Mean It" Forefinger-Thumb Touch, place your thumb and forefinger together, keeping your other fingers loose and your palm facing towards your body. Accent your words with a shake of your hand and your listener will understand you to be earnest and sincere (or at least really emphatic in your attempt to swindle).

Note: Combine this with the final gesture-- pointing your other three fingers up rather than to the side-- and this gesture means "Techake Li Rega! Wait a second!" and need not be accompanied by words.

4. The Cooperative Two-handed Beckon


This gesture is at a more advanced level, and should not be attempted until gestures 1-3 are mastered. To execute this gesture (common among salespeople who are putting all their cards on the table and giving you the sincere advice that you should purchase their most expensive model, because they like you), move into your intended target's personal space. Extend your arms to the side and back from your body, so that your wrists are even with your hips. Raise your chin and eyebrows, open your palms, and say, "Tish'ma achi, what an I say? You want your water to taste like plastic, buy the cheap kumkum!)

5. The "Nu, Zeh Barur, Lo?" Shrug

At first glance, this gesture might seem to resemble the Cooperative Two-Handed Beckon, but note the key differences. In the "Nu, Zeh Barur, Lo?" Shrug, the shoulders are raised, the chin is lowered (and turned slightly to the side), and hands are extended out beyond the body. This gesture also differs from the Lip Shrug in that rather than indicate that the shrugger does not know, this gesture indicates that what the shrugger is saying should be obvious to any sane person listening. In fact, what is being indicated is so obvious that you shouldn't speak while making this gesture, because nu, it's clear, no?

6. The Two-Handed Precision Gestures

This encompasses a whole range of precise, two-handed movements. Using two hands together at close proximity indicates that the reader must pay close attention to follow the complex point the gesturer is making. (In this case, the gesturer is indicating the one spot in Tel Aviv where, just maybe, between 6 and 8 in the morning, street parking is available.)

7. The "Zeh Oh Zeh" One-Handed Swipe


In another gesture that is executed without talking, this gesture involves a dismissive sweep of the hand from the center to the side. This gesture indicates that all worrying is over (that's it-- zeh oh zeh) and a situation has been taken care of. If the gesture's recipient still worries, click your tongue and make a patting gesture to the side. As a side note, the person in this picture looks eerily similar to our landlord.

8. The Emphatic Finger


This gesture-- seen in the clip at 1:28 and elsewhere-- might at first be confused with the Instructional Finger. Not so-- this is the Emphatic Finger, and the palm facing the body makes it completely different. Execute this gesture by leaning slightly forward, raising your eyebrows, and shaking your hand forward slightly with every word. Frequently accompanied by baffled outrage at the government, this gesture indicates not only that the speaker really, really means what he is about to say, but that he has a very important point to make. 

Now go and gesture like an Israeli! Which gestures are your favorites? Which ones do you actually use? Would you add any to the list?


  1. Wow, great analysis.
    As an Israeli, I must say that I'm surprised that some of these are unfamiliar to Americans. These body gestures really emphasize how people talk to others like family..

    By the way, the body gestures are similar to Greeks and South Italians...very informal and expressive

  2. Maya, this is hysterical. You should be doing Inter Cultural Intelligence at an Ulpan!

  3. LOL, Maya.
    I am Italian and lived in Israel for about a year as a kid and come back quite often. I never saw anything peculiar about Israelis' hand gestures: they are more or less the same we have here in Italy. But I understand from an anglo perspective they must be masheu masheu. Cool blog.


  4. This is great! I'm a non-religious shikse who just came back from three months "hanging out" in Jerusalem. This blog makes me smile! I wish I had found it BEFORE I left Israel!


  5. Thanks, everyone! I had fun writing this post. :) Anna and Claudia, welcome-- and stick around! I agree that a lot of these gestures are probably more universal than just Israeli. But, I mean, watch that video-- the sheer volume of hand gestures in it puts Americans to shame.

  6. This was a terrific post ;)

  7. Very nicely presented!

    Claudia, I have to ask: A shikse is a non-Jewish woman. What is a non-religious shikse?!

    Hanukah sameach!

  8. Hhahaha! I'm from Spain, and spent six months in Israel. I felt like at home, and the gesture thing didn't surprise me at all. I guess it's something all mediterraneans have in common :)

  9. This was brilliant, you're really funny. Am forwarding along to my friends!

  10. In Bulgaria we have all but the 3-rd :)

  11. Girl, you totally crack me up!!

    My folks made Aliyah in 1986 (I spent many years there as a kid, too) and I can't help but laugh WITH you at the things you are writing about. I completely appreciate it!!

    After reading the posting on shrugging, I find myself wiping latte foam off my laptop monitor.

    Thanks for the laughs and for the great flashbacks over coffee!

    Lahit', yo!

  12. this was really cute....you did a great job maya..there IS one more...it's kind of a combination of the Nu, Zeh Barur, Lo and Tish'ma achi...with it's own lip shrug... it's done with an exaggerated execution of all three with the head turned quite far to the side...and it's used to say i don't really know the answer to (this problem), but A.there's nothing i can do B. so there's no point in talking about it {note: this can be misunderstood to the recipient that the gesturer doesn't really care..which may or may not be true. i would have demonstrated it with a video but i couldn't reach MY landlord. :) i enjoy your blog though i just recently discovered it!

  13. Never been to Israel, yet all these seemed strangely familiar. Then I remembered where I'd seen all the gestures: in old Soviet comedies. The great comedians of 1960s and 70s were very expressive, so they gestured and made faces all the time. Maybe it's an Odessan thing, who knows.

  14. The one you missed is one shoulder shrug kids do when they're in trouble. Drives me crazy!

  15. LOL this is hilarious! very nice work Maya!

  16. Brilliant. Hilarious. "Two-Handed Precision Gestures" and "The "I Really Really Mean It" Forefinger-Thumb Touch" have me on the floor!

  17. LOL-Another good one- the "Lama ma kara?" or "what's up?" wrist twist? (hand folded forward, about 90 degrees, above the waist, twist the wrist twice and come to a full stop on the third twist with hand open in front of you.)

  18. LOL-Another good one- the "Lama ma kara?" or "what's up?" wrist twist? (hand folded forward, about 90 degrees, above the waist, twist the wrist backwords twice and come to a full stop on the third twist with hand open in front of you.)

  19. I am Greek. We use all of these except No.3. No. 1, No. 5 and no. 7 are very, very common and kind of considered typical. BTW, I really, really laughed while I read the text under each gesture. I feel for you, I understand fitting in must have been really frustrating for you at times. BTW, July 10, 2011 8:01 AM is right, you didn't add the 'Lama ma Kara' or wrist twist. We say "pos paei" with the same gesture and the same meaning.

  20. This is an old post, but I'm sure glad I found it. Very funny, and helpful as well. Actually, I'm reading through your entire blog and I can't thank you enough for all your wonderful stories and how-to-do-its. Great stuff. It is certainly giving me a different (more rational, but still excited) outlook on my Aliyah.


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