Why is this IKEA different from all other IKEAs?
As I rounded the corner into the home decorations showroom of Israel’s Netanya IKEA, I almost ran my cart into a man struggling with his cart. His was the kind designed for carrying big items that he’d need to build at home- desks, beds, bookcases, maybe even an entire brand new kitchen. Mine was the supermarket shopping cart type, but it was already overflowing. The man and I looked at each other in shared sympathy, his eyes caught mine right before I almost rammed him with my cart.
My eyes were apologetic and his eyes showed frustration under the N Na Nach Nachma Nachman… white kippah, his peahs, long and brown and twisted, stuck out from the sides. He managed to get his cart under control while I snuck a look at his purchases: brightly colored sheets, a few picture frames, some boxes that could contain anything, an area rug. His cart looked like mine, and maybe his house does, too. So did the cart of the post-army friends furnishing their first apartment and so did the cart of the family speaking French, so did the cart of the young Arab couple and so did the cart of the couple from B’nei Brak and their 7 children.
IKEA in August in Israel is akin to the Olam HaBah (The World to Come)- we are all united under the single purpose of shared longings, joined in the pursuit of hiddur mitzvah (fulfilling a commandment and ‘beautifying’ it) – Shalom Bayit (the mitzvah commanding domestic harmony) should not only feel good, it should look good. We have entered the world to come and it is bright and clean and color-coordinated – it is the world as we would like it to be, not a thing out of place, people of every conceivable religious belief under one roof, eating smoked salmon and hummous in peace and harmony.
In IKEA, pregnant bellies bulge out of every type of garment- long dresses, halter tops, jeans, and leggings. Nesting transcends cultures. How many pregnant women can fit into an elevator at IKEA? Not as many as can fit in the showroom of cribs and baby bedding. How do you say excuse me in Russian? Oh, I forgot, we don’t say excuse me here, we just bump into people, the lamp we’ve just picked out grazes their arm, and we move on.
Like when we drive, Israelis are at the same time visible and invisible to one another- to acknowledge is to see and to see is to see yourself, so it’s better to ignore the other in order not to have to love your neighbor as yourself. We choose when we want to recognize each other. The same man who would otherwise consider me a religious heretic is my ally in IKEA. The woman who hits my shoulder with her bag next to the kitchen fixtures is the one who helps me find the post office in my neighborhood. In Israel we vacillate between feeling connected and feeling separate from one another. We are alike and different at every moment.
We are most alike in the checkout line. This is where we learn that all couples have arguments and that all couples have the same arguments. Whether in Amharic or Farsi or Hebrew or English or Arabic, “Why did you buy this?” and “Since when did you spend so much on the credit card?” and “Let me do it myself” and “I’ll stay here while you get the car” can be understood in any language. The check out people are trained in family therapy. They wait patiently for the couple to finish their argument before they ask, “Would you like to purchase a bag?” We stand behind, waiting for our turn, praising ourselves for getting through the store without a cross word, but by the time we’ve left the parking lot, we, too, are arguing about whether or not we needed the large bright red rug and where it will go.
Under the hypnotic awe of orange chairs and leather couches and new pots and pans, we break down the boundaries between us. We trade advice with people we’d never speak to on our streets; we converse about the bottom line of living. We’re all thinking about whether we have enough plates for the Rosh Hashanah meal, regardless of what we do before and after the meal, and that our children have a proper bed in which to sleep. We stand obediently in the orderly lines of the IKEA cafeteria, unable to push ahead of each other as we are accustomed to do. We are friends. We are in the world to come.