When I was getting my Israeli driver’s license about 10 years ago, I sat in the Jerusalem DMV and watched as a woman who looked to be in her 60s had an argument with a motor vehicles official over replacing her lost license.
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The official asked for identification, but the woman said it had been lost or stolen along with her license. “What about a passport?” the official asked. The woman looked shocked and affronted. “A passport?!” she exclaimed. “What am I, an American?”
In large part, it has become so unremarkable for Israelis to take a bat mitzvah trip to London or Los Angeles, go on a clubbing weekend in Turkey or Bulgaria, or embark on a months-long backpacking trip in the Far East or South America that sometimes it can be tough to remember that there remain some Israelis – especially among the poor and the ultra-Orthodox – for whom all those cities, countries and regions can be readily dismissed with one word: hul [khool], a commonly used Hebrew acronym for hutz la’aretz, meaning “out of the country” or “out of Israel.”
Eretz (or aretz) can mean “earth,” “land,” “country,” “ground” or “territory.” The first verse of the Bible talks about the creation of heaven (shamayim) and earth (aretz); but the word can also refer to a very specific land: Israel. If someone asks when you plan to return la’aretz, they want to know when you’ll be back in Israel; if they ask whether you bought that necklace ba’aretz, they want to know whether they can pick up a similar one at a local store. Same with the name of this newspaper: “Haaretz” means “the land,” and that land is Israel.
The distinction between Israel and anywhere outside of it is relevant in Jewish law, since location affects whether certain laws, such as those governing the consumption of produce, apply. The Talmud tells us that “Every commandment that is dependent on the aretz applies only in Israel [ba’aretz] and that which is not dependent on the land applies both in Israel and outside of Israel [behutza la’aretz, an early variation of hutz la’aretz]” (Kiddushin 36b).
In modern usage, the concept behind hutz la’aretz, or hul, is as relevant to those who tell stories of all the fellow Israelis they’ve met on their far-flung journeys as it is to those who have never set foot on an airplane. In separating Israel from everywhere else and lumping all those everywhere elses into a single unit marked only as “not Israel,” the concept of hul can, for some, make it appealing to be anywhere that’s not here, while for others can make “abroad” seem like one big blob of uncharted territory, where only Americans hold passports and others fear to tread.
The burning desire that some Israelis have to get out of this narrow New Jersey-sized country for however temporary a respite was lampooned by the legendary comedy trio Hagashah Hahiver, in the skit “Returning from hutz la’aretz”: “We have a wonderful country, it’s true, but what’s our country worth without ‘out of the country’ [hutz la’aretz]? You’re dying to get out of here but dying even more to come back. And those who have already undergone this experience of returning from hutz la’aretz want to return and return and return to this experience of returning to Israel.”
To contact Shoshana Kordova with column suggestions or other word-related comments, email her at email@example.com. For previous Word of the Day columns, go to: www.haaretz.com/news/features/word-of-the-day.