When you travel halfway around the world, what do you expect to see? A reflection of your own culture and way of life? A distortion? Or maybe something else – a portal into a whole other world?
I wondered about such things on my 10-hour flight to Israel. (Right between hours 2 and 8 when I was hopelessly trying to sleep). Hundreds of thousands of Jews from around the world had taken the same pilgrimage back to the Holy Land, often as part of Birthright (a free trip for Jewish people 18 to 27). I foolishly never took up that offer, but now I was given a second chance through the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia, which offers a trip designed to engage young Jewish adults in learning more about Judaism and Israel. (You can read a blog of our incredible travels over the course of 10 days.) What would I find?
Israel is an anomaly in many ways, but especially this: It’s a modern, high-tech, first-world society completely surrounded by countries that are, to varying degrees, none of those things. I gathered that some things would be similar to our lives here. But what would be different religiously? Culturally? And – for the purposes of my bosses and forthcoming tax write-off – promotional product-wise?
The surprising answer to the last question: not much. Some things apparently are universal, including the need for businesses to identify themselves and companies to promote their brands through souvenir T-shirts with witty slogans. Here are a handful of brand observations from my time in the Promised Land:
- Just like anywhere else, brand identity is essential. A bevy of restaurants and cafes deck their staffs in imprinted tees. So, too, do the number of service organizations that cater to tour groups in the country. Even charities and nonprofits get into the act. On our trip, a speaker from Nirim in the Neighborhood wore a raglan baseball tee with the charity’s logo emblazoned on the left chest and across the back. A community outreach program for at-risk teenagers in Israel, Nirim in the Neighborhood is named for Nir Krichman, a Navy Seal that was killed in action in 2002. The organization’s logo is an adapted version of the winged insignia used for Israel’s navy seals.
- During the summer, Israel’s hottest temperatures easily reach 90 degrees Fahrenheit and above, so it’s no surprise that performance fabrics are the preference of many workers wearing logoed apparel. Security guards who accompany the various trips wear logoed red performance shirts, while the proprietor of the ATV and Jeep tours in the Golan Heights (the mountainous Northeast corner of the country) opted for navy.
- Retail slogan tees are the fashion style of choice in Israel, particularly among younger girls and woman. By contrast, there wasn’t the assault of athletic wear and retail logos that you see in the U.S.
- Jerusalem and Tel Aviv are flush with Judaica stores offering menorahs, Shabbat candlestick holders and other items used in the Jewish faith. Among them is a flood of yarmulkes (the head coverings that orthodox Jewish males wear) with all sorts of Sesame Street, Disney and comic book characters (all licensed, I’m sure) as well as sports teams. Many shops also offer T-shirts of American pro and college sports teams with Hebrew lettering. You’ll also see a rash of IDF (Israel Defense Forces) items, not surprising given how the military is so deeply woven into the fabric of the country. (Two to three years of military service is mandatory for Israeli teenagers.)
- T-shirts in general were widely available in every market, many of the funny variety ranging from witty to crass. My favorite? The “100% Kosher” onesie we bought for our baby. While some shirts are already pre-made, most vendors just keep blanks with reams of transfers and trusty Hix heat presses. One vendor took note when I pointed out the heat press to my wife. “It’s American,” he replied. Even 6,000 miles away, some things you just can’t escape.