When to say “Shalom” (and when not to)

A recurring trope in Hollywood films and American TV is that when Jews meet or part with each other, they say “Shalom!”. This is an amusing fallacy, based on the premise that all Jews are Hebrew-speaking Israelis—which is not the case.

In fact, even native Israelis rarely greet each other that way.

In my talk about Arabic Hebrew: How Israelis Really Speak, I point out that this myth is similar to how, in American film and TV productions in the 1950s and ‘60s, native Americans (or “Indians”, as they were called back then) would always greet each other (and white men, in particular) with the word “How!”

In reality, there are only three situations when Hebrew speakers greet each other with the word Shalom!:

  • (Solemnly) when meeting someone for the first time (in which case, it is usually followed by the words Na’im me’od = “Pleased to meet you”), or when interviewed.
  • (Joyfully) when grandparents welcome their grandchildren whom they haven’t seen for some time
  • (Ironically) when you open the door and find a friend whom you’re glad to see but who has turned up out of the blue, or hasn’t been in touch for a long time.

The typical way that most Israelis greet each other in person is Ahalan!—borrowed from the Arabic greeting Ahlan waSahlan.

When parting from someone, the word Shalom is slightly more common, but usually with a slightly negative connotation of “Goodbye and hope never to see you again” (like the French adieu).

The typical way that people part from one another for the past twenty-odd years is a telling combination of English and Arabic that encapsulates modern Israel’s hybrid, Western-Middle Eastern character: Yallah bye! (Yallah being Arabic for “Let’s go!”, or “Come on!”).

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