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Why is Israel so noisy???

The noise in Israel drives me crazy sometimes.  There, I said it.  And I feel better for saying it.  And yes, it is specifically the noise in Israel.  Because Israel truly is an especially noisy place.

I used to just think we lived in a particularly noisy neighbourhood.  Luck of the draw, I figured.  Then I travelled around and realized that I do indeed live in a particularly noisy neighbourhood – and that neighbourhood is called the State of Israel.

You simply can’t get away from noise here.  So don’t even try.

Take our house, for example.  We live within walking distance of four schools, all of which, instead of school bells, play tunes and chimes (instead of school bells, like we had in Canada) so loud you can hear them blocks away.  GZ’s school routinely plays music for the kids’ enjoyment in the yard as they arrive in the morning, and you can hear that two blocks away as well. 

Then there are the happy routines of parades, celebrations, simchas, and special occasions, each of which

necessitates about a dozen huge speakers blasting at deafening volume.  And the tzedaka-collecting cars that drive around blasting messages from their rooftop speakers about a family in need or a person seeking medical treatment abroad.  Or the truck driving around with a rooftop speaker asking for used appliances (to sell, I guess?).

All of which is not even including the massively loud neighbourhood sirens, which baruch Hashem, we have only ever heard right before Shabbos and yom tov, on Yom HaAtzmaut and Yom HaShoah, and for the routine tests they conduct once or twice a year.  Or the planes going overhead which are sometimes incredibly loud – but completely invisible by the time you hear them.  Oh – or the explosions that occasionally boom up the coast from the military munitions factory (Rafael) just north of here, though that was more of a problem when we lived in the merkaz klitah and the building sometimes shook with them.

And that is ALSO not to mention the inconsiderate neighbours:  3 out of 8 in our building bombard us regularly with unpleasant noises of all kinds, either not knowing or not caring that they’re making our apartment very loud in the process.  If only they’d all do it at the same time of day it might be a bearable cacophony, but no, they spread out the joy…

Oh – and I haven’t even gotten into the issue over noisy calls-to-prayer in neighbourhoods close to Arab towns.  I’m all for religious tolerance, but when people start deliberately cranking up the volume to torment their neighbours and make a political point (and win sympathy from the outside world), it can quickly become unbearable for those living nearby.  I hope you don’t think I’m not taking sides here… except the side of peace and quiet.

A lot of people got excited with the passage of a newly-toughened nationwide noise by-law in 2011, but it turns out it basically restricts fireworks and industrial noise, and doesn’t really offer much protection to people in residential neighbourhoods against the ordinary hassles of day-to-day noise.  And it still allows the traditional 5 nights a year when it’s perfectly legal to make all the noise you want, all night long.  And until midnight erev or motzaei Shabbat or chag (meaning at least 2 nights out of 7, every single week!).  (You can find all the details on this site in Hebrew.)

There are also a few factors going on here that can make even ordinary noise seem extraordinarily loud.

Like the fact that all-concrete residential buildings here aren’t usually soundproofed at all.  With no such thing as insulation, sometimes they can transmit sound super-well from one unit to another.  And when somebody’s playing music in one unit, the walls vibrate throughout the building in a way I never experienced in Canada – where I lived in side-by-side attached houses (shared wall), along with townhouses in developments, and apartments in buildings large and small.  Nowhere have I experienced the entire apartment shuddering with the bass like it does here on a regular basis.

Another thing: when the weather is mild, everybody throws open their windows.  There’s nothing like walking down a “deserted” residential street in Israel after dark and hearing the sounds of hundreds of Israelis clinking cutlery, puttering around the house, watching TV, listening to music, and having conversations and arguments that are all clearly audible from the sidewalk.

Another thing: those hundreds of Israelis are crammed into a one- or two-block area.  Israel is a small and Israelis in general are more crammed together, which I think probably raises the volume level quite a bit.  Walking through the same residential distance in Toronto, for example, even right downtown, there might only be a couple dozen people instead of a couple hundred.  And most of them have their windows closed, keeping themselves to themselves.

But none of that answers the main question I keep coming back to – why the heck are Israelis so noisy in the first place?

Because even with all these mitigating factors, Israelis ARE loud.  They speak loudly, drive loudly, entertain loudly.  Enjoy every single minute of their lives at a volume about two or three times what I’m used to.

And there, I think it comes down to the fact that noise is an ingrained part of the Israeli cultural identity. 

Culturally, the sabra identity is often referred to -- in the kind of dry pasty academic circles where people titter over such things -- as "the ugly Israeli."  This identity, as Sela-Sheffy (2004) describes in her research on Israeli identity, perhaps emerged in iconoclastic contrast with the “civilized” European identity.  Whether or not the archetype actually corresponds to reality, it has served an important role in identity formation of generations of Israelis. 

The most popular variation on the “ugly Israeli” identity is “the Sabra."  I’m sure you’ve heard this term used to describe native Israelis.  The Sabra is the fruit of the prickly-pear cactus, suggesting that Israelis may be prickly and hard on the outside, but they’re sweet and juicy on the inside.  (In one of the ultimate ironies of Israeli life, the Sabra cactus, far from being a native here, is in fact a transplant from the American southwest.) 

Sela-Sheffy attempted to distill the essence of modern Israeliness by analyzing 295 one-line contributions to the newspaper Maariv, written between 1996 and 1998 by a range of people in response to the question, “What makes one an Israeli?” (She chose 180 out of 295, eliminating special contributions by celebrities and those reacting to “special traumatic occasions” as they arose – probably a reference to terror incidents)

For example, one of the respondents muses wistfully, “An Israeli is a Sabra: noisy, crude and illtempered.  The sweetness and softness of the inside – these we have forgotten over the years.” 

In other words, Israelis are still ugly – but without the soft inside.  Again, that’s a native speaking, not me imposing my perceptions as an outsider.  Overwhelmingly, the 180 one-liners Sela-Sheffy used for her study mentioned ugliness and ill-manneredness as part of what makes them tick:

  • An Israeli is a driver who arrives at a red light, opens the door and empties the ashtray on the ground.
  • An Israeli is someone who goes on field trips just in order to scratch his name on trees and stones.
  • An Israeli is someone who drives through a pedestrian crossing while people are still crossing it.

Whether actual sabras are sweet on the inside or ugly all the way through, the point seems to be the tough, prickly, hardened exterior. 

Which brings us back to noise.  And the ugliness of the noise here.  The constancy of it.  The loudness of it.  As if the ugliness of the Israeli identity extends to the audible environment Israelis create for themselves, as if they’re trying to toughen themselves up from the cochlea on out.

In other words, Israelis love their loudness.  They’re proud of it.  They see it – to some extent – as a big part of what makes them Israeli.

I’ve heard that people in loud, demonstrative, in-your-face cultures look down on people in other types of cultures.  Canadian culture in particular, for example, is seen (justifiably so) as cool and distant, a culture where we rarely and hesitantly reach out to one another, touch one another, look each other in the eyes. 

Loud-culture people see their form of culture as authentic, warm, and honest.  While quiet-culture people see their form of culture as respectful, considerate, gracious.

Meaning there’s no right or wrong… yet when my ears are aching and my brain is thudding with the noise all around me, that can be very, very hard to believe.

What do you think?

More about noise in Israel:

Tzivia / צִיבְיָה


  1. I find my neighborhood relatively quiet. And people are so nice.

    1. If and when they widen the roads, I'll be the first one out there. I get so claustrophobic and antsy being connected to the rest of the country by a single line-up of cars. A train might be nice, too. But yes, as I've mentioned, we're being pressured almost weekly now to think about moving out there. Maybe someday! :-)

      (p.s. You can't hear muezzin calls-to-prayer from where you are? In Kochav Yaakov you certainly can...)

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  3. And what about the obligatory blast on the horn as the lights start to turn green?

    1. Definitely! Fortunately, our home is actually a decent distance - a block away from the main street. But we do get treated to the occasional crash or crunch from a collision out there!


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