Monday, November 30, 2015

Sometimes the thoughts swirl faster than others

7:35-ish TZOMET HaGush. Say goodbye to Asher and watch him board the 160 bus toward Hebron.
Drive back to efrat, pick up the girls, drop them at school.
7:58 pull over to check my phone. Stabbing at TZOMET HaGush.  Hebron side.

How to measure a hairsbreadth?

Some proximity of time and place, I know.
"My son got on the bus minutes before the terrorist approached the bus stop and started stabbing." Or, as reported by a close friend, "I was in the next car after the car that was sprayed with bullets." Or, as reported by another close friend, "The boulder was sitting on my dashboard. When I got out of the car I found I was covered in glass."
But also an intense familiarity. 
"That place where the terrorist attack occurred - I go there every day, every week, every whatever." "That person who was killed was my teacher, my neighbor, my friend's son, a girl I met in a tremp...."
Thus leaving nearly every single resident of this place with a distinct feeling of (they or their loved ones) just having escaped with their lives. 

[hairz-bredth, -bretth, -breth] 

a very small space or distance:
We escaped an accident by a hairsbreadth.
When i dropped asher to TZOMET HaGush this morning I offered up some theories as to why the new elite army unit we have aiming sniper rifles at every car is wearing face masks. His question - why do we need such an elite unit. I made him laugh when I repeated something I'd read yesterday - TZOMET HaGush is the most dangerous place in israel right now. I admitted it also made me giggle because our experience at this spot is a history of boring bus alighting, uneventful grocery shopping and ambivalent gas refueling. It reminded me of growing up outside Washington, D.C. in the 1980s when the nations capital was dubiously renamed the Murder Capital of the World. We giggled then too. Not out of insensitivity. Our experience, there too, was vast and uneventful. People are afraid to come to the place where I go shopping for cool clothes or to visit museums? It felt absurd. Yet I never was so physically close, in those days, to the actual violence that plagued Washington. In fact, the giggle is where the analogy ends. In this stage of my life, it has been very close, very real, very insanely miraculously just a hairsbreadth away - physically. Emotionally, however, there is no escape.

We were blessed by our cousin's husband at the Brit Milah of his son yesterday. We being all of Am Yisrael.
כד  יְבָרֶכְךָ ה״ וְיִשְׁמְרֶךָ.  {ס}24 The LORD bless thee, and keep thee; {S}
כה  יָאֵר ה״ פָּנָיו אֵלֶיךָ, וִיחֻנֶּךָּ.  {ס}25 The LORD make His face to shine upon thee, and be gracious unto thee; {S}
כו  יִשָּׂא ה״ פָּנָיו אֵלֶיךָ, וְיָשֵׂם לְךָ שָׁלוֹם.  {ס}26 The LORD lift up His countenance upon thee, and give thee peace. {S}

Monday, October 19, 2015

Swirling Thoughts #235 - really just an ordinary day

Since the great (Target) credit card breach of 2013, we've been suffering the effects of “once you give someone in this country your credit card number, you'd better pray there's never a great credit card scandal leaving you with a new card because then you will just be screwed.” Yes that is a real effect.

Recall my myriad pleasant exchanges with Cellcom. OMG just recalling that brings up bile.

Enter Israeli social security - lovingly known to all Tehudat Zehut (national identity card) carrying Israeli citizens as Bituach Leumi. Let me start by saying Bituach Leumi (once you find the branch you need – there are four all within an impossible block in the center of town – making the chances of finding the one you need on the first try just 25%), has higher security than the airport. They pat you down. Then they laser scan you. They ask way tougher questions than any El Al agent has ever asked me (Come on! Everyone knows their Hebrew name and who packed their luggage!). But not everyone knows the answers to gruff questions like "yesh l'chem va'ada?" In the 10 seconds it takes for me to process the Hebrew (and that's on a good day) the door has already been closed on me while they pat down the next guy. I'm left mentally translating an answer when they come back to me and offer an equally gruff "English?"

In any case, the last time we gathered up the tall pile of Bituach Leumi notices that have been relentlessly filling my mailbox since the credit card number was switched, we arrived to an amazing line of zero people! What luck! We were then told Bituach Leumi is closed on Wednesdays. And it was told to us in such a way that basically translated to,
“Duh. Aren’t you citizens with Teudat Zehut cards? Everyone in the country knows Bituach Leumi is closed on Wednesday.”
Well, that’s how it felt, anyway.

And so we made a date of it, had some lunch, and put the pile on hold. For about another year.

I should add that in the interim we successfully reached them by telephone - a whole other story involving a lost secret code - and tried to give over our credit card info . Who refuses credit card info? Hint: if you are missing a secret code, Cellcom & Bituach Leumi. Make no mistake. In Israel, the secret code is king. We thought we'd untangled the mess but that Bituach Leumi pile of mail kept flowing in. And the truth – it felt kind of ominous.

And so today, a Monday, mind u, we arranged for gan pickups, babysitting and carpools. All through my morning yoga class, instead of clearing my mind, I debated back and forth: to bring my gun or to leave my gun. (Did I forget to post about getting a gun? Oops.) As I’ve been toting it around Efrat (recall Nir Barkat, Mayor of Jerusalem, advising Jerusalemites who have guns to carry guns and the subsequent advisory from our Minister of Defense…) it would seem like a no-brainer to bring it into town. Except for pat-down guy whose job it would be to check my gun, coat-check style. Except what if he asks me questions, fast, in Hebrew, faster than I can answer him and we’re left with him finding my gun while I’m fumbling for my license? My yoga class would have been better spent 'staying in the present' as my question was answered in 2 seconds flat by my fellow yogis at the end of class: Have gun? Bring gun. Sababa.

Mission Impossible
So I didn’t clear my mind but I did clear my calendar.  We had all day. And so we gathered up the oppressive stack of Bituach Leumi notices and made our way in to the center of town. Me, armed and ready to protect my beloved. Now - an aside - I kept hearing how town (Jerusalem) is empty on account of all the terror attacks. Couple that with the one- in-a-million parking spot I found ONE time in the impossible area surrounding Bituach Leumi, and I put my faith in a really hopeful silver lining and had my beloved turn into the impossible area. About 40 minutes after turning onto Shlomtzion Hamalka Street (and moving about 40 meters) Bob looked at me and said “It’s probably best you carry the gun.”  

Ignoring the obvious (hungry man suffering from traffic fatigue will want to eat meat), I pointed out my favorite dairy café as we inched along. An alternate silver lining.  Alas we found a spot and made our way to A (not THE) Bituach Leumi office where we were promptly asked if we had a va'ada. Va’ada? I repeated, buying myself some time, but not really as the door promptly closed on us. After a moment it reopened and there was a gruff offer of "English?". To which we answered by presenting our stack of papers and asking where the appropriate Bituach Leumi office was located. The way the guard looked at my stack of papers made me think not too many people let their Bituach Leumi mailings accumulate over an almost two year period. And so came the answer, gruff and in Hebrew.

Closed? On Monday?
Yes. Closed Monday.
This must be terror related.
Just today?

No. Every Monday!
But I thought Bituach Leumi was closed on Wednesday!  
Yes.  Also Wednesday. Open tomorrow from 8:30-12
Of course. I just don’t understand how they can generate all the mailings they’ve sent me on a 4 day work week.

There were no real words at this moment – just hunger and so, being the sport that he is, Bob agreed to view the menu of said favorite dairy café.  As we approached I saw some obvious security guys moving about. The curly behind-the-ear wire  is a dead giveaway. Then there was Mister Enthusiasm – literally a guy sitting outside the café announcing to anyone who passed by, “Nir Barkat, Mayor of Jerusalem is inside the café! And the American Ambassador just walked by!” He said it to us twice and then to a friend on the phone as Bob eyed the menu. He was really enthusiastic about it all. I contemplated popping in to let the mayor know how I’m following his advice but thought better of it in light of all the security.

In the end we walked further into town, looking for a certain bookstore. Mistaking the Mashbir (Israel’s version of Sears) for a mall, I got my big chance to get through security with my gun. It was quite uneventful but a sort of milestone nonetheless. We had a traditional his and her’s Ben Yehuda Street lunch – me a smoothie, him a falafel – and we chalked it up to another failed errand turned lunch date (of which we've had countless in 6+ years).   

And as sure as the mail will arrive, I know we will try, yet again. Stay tuned...

Swirling Thoughts #234 Escape from Cellcom…One woman’s tale of woe and deception

Disclaimer: I am fully aware that some of my perceived conspiracies are an outgrowth of my illiteracy and lack of cultural understanding. Perhaps most or even all of them. Nevertheless, my perception is my reality.
It all started one year ago in May of 2014 when our american credit card company decided, in light of the previous Thanksgiving’s credit card breach via Target, to cancel and re-issue cards to all its customers.

I promptly called every number on my credit card statement to let them know to automatically bill the new card in place of the old.

When I reached Cellcom I was informed that they would not be able to automatically bill the new card as it is a non-Israeli card.
But the old card was a non-Israeli card.
Yes but we can no longer accept non-Israeli cards for payment.
But if my card number had not been switched we wouldn’t be having this conversation and you would still be billing my non-Israeli card without incident.
And so, we cleared up the terms of Cellcom’s secret grandfather clause.

When a family makes money in America (Bob works in NY, remember) and spends it in Israel, suffice it to say the most efficient way to pay bills is to have them all centralized to a credit card in the country where the money is. That said…

It’s no problem just give us your Israeli card.
I don’t have one.
Insert long conversation of them not believing I don’t have an Israeli card and me not believing they won’t take my American card. A game of Chicken, if you will.
Then you will have to pay every month.
How will I know to pay?
We send an email.  
Small detail. Bob gets the emails. He doesn't always remember to send them to me.
Can you send me the email?
You are not authorized on the account so no.
How will I know to pay???
We will send you a text. Do not worry. 
Wait. A red flag just went up somewhere in the universe.
Are you sure?
Yes. I am sure.
And sure enough over the next many months I received the kinds of texts even an illiterate immigrant cannot ignore. With words like ‘immediately’ and ‘settle your debt’. They sure do talk tough over there at Cellcom. I tried calling many times to figure out better ways to work the billing. One time they told me to photograph my bill, my American credit card and my national ID card and sms it to a cell phone number they provided. Out of desperation I did this and was answered a week later with a debt collection text.  

And so I would go to the post office, ask to pay my Cellcom bill, identify myself as Robert (really they just take the ID number) and pay. And pay and pay and pay. Those bills seemed so high. Hundreds and hundreds of shekels high. And those texts were so threatening! I went to the post office early a few times hoping to avoid the nasty text. Each time they told me I didn’t have a balance! How could it be?

I spent a few hours poolside with my Israeli neighbor this past Pesach. She was horrified to find out I was paying anything more than 80 shekels. 
She got on the phone with Cellcom and demanded answers.
Why isn’t Lisa paying 80 shekels LIKE ALL OTHER ISRAELIS PAY?
She pays late every month.

Turns out that those texts are only sent after the billing cycle is over and the bill hasn’t been paid. At that point a 100 shekel late fee is added to the balance! Text does not equal bill. And for some strange reason the post office cannot identify my not-yet-overdue Cellcom balance without a paper bill. 

So for starters we asked for paper bills to be sent. Eureka. But the monthly average is still so high.
It’s still too high!
Oh but it includes home telephone services!
We don’t use Cellcom for our home telephone services.
But you should! You are paying for it.
Also it includes Television.
But it’s so worthwhile! You are already paying for Cellcom television!
We couldn’t take anything off until they spoke to Bob for his authorization. Because Bob set up the account. He got on the phone and asked that they authorize me, his wife, to also make important decisions regarding our account. They required that request in writing with a copy of my national identity card. OMG.

After Pesach I checked the mailbox for our new paper bill at least twice a week for a month, effectively doubling the amount of trips to the mailbox I’ve made since we made aliyah. Guess what? No bill. I checked with Bob. Not even an email bill. But I got a LOT of phone calls trying to re-sell me Cellcom TV service. Until I realized the benefit of living in the HOLY land.
We don’t have TV!
Don’t you want TV?
We’re religious Jews! We don’t believe in TV! Please stop calling!

Now my Hebrew isn’t great and I rely a lot on pictures to explain things like, for example, the booklet my kids brought home on how to deal with possible emergencies such as rockets, shells and

(Incidentally, I asked my 5 year old what we are supposed to do if we find ourselves in this particular situation. She answered very matter-of-factly. We pray.)

And I rely a lot on my kids to translate for me. Which is exactly what Barbara did last week when she got the ominous debt collection text from Cellcom.

And so I reached my limit. I dispatched Bob to hook us up to a new cell phone provider just hours before he left for New York. Like 2 hours before. He saw I meant business.

And like that, we were free. For about five minutes. 

The first call came in exactly 12 hours later. It was Yossi from Cellcom. I started laughing right away.
I know I’m a funny guy but I didn’t even say anything yet!
You don’t have to Yossi.
Our connection isn’t so great. Probably because you are no longer using Cellcom!
It’s okay, Yossi! I’m not coming back.
But we have a great deal!
Barbara was in the car with me. I assured her they would be calling back.
Eventually they will even call back in English, I told her.

Today they called her looking for Robert. She gave them my number. This is how it went.
Shalom, can we speak to Robert?
This is Robert.
(Pause….Robert is not... a man?

This was my chance.
Oh, no! Robert is short for Roberta. In America, Roberta is a woman's name. When we made aliyah they dropped the a.

Somehow this ridiculous lie was deemed reasonable and she continued with her pitch. I cut her off.

I can’t. I won’t. There is nothing you can say that will bring me back.
But why? Please. Explain it to me. You can speak in English.

She really wanted to understand.

I paid hundreds of shekels extra each month in late fees all because they refused to take my American credit card and that the only way I would ever come back is if they would repay me those fees and accept my American credit card. I’m done.
I understand, Robert.
Thank you! And please please please have them stop calling me. Because I’m not coming back.

Post script. No Cellcom calls or texts were received from this last conversation in May until today. I guess “NO” means “Ask me again in five months.”

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Swirling Thoughts #233 Who's more Israeli than me?

If you asked me yesterday, I would say nothing here surprises me anymore. Someone did ask me yesterday about my blog. What could I tell them without sounding stoic. I can’t write a blog about hilarious Israeli idiosyncrasies that catch the unsuspecting American by surprise because I’ve seen it all – the multi-racial mascot on the package of chocolate and vanilla cake, the 9-year olds taking 6- and 3-year olds to the park, the cashier’s limp hand dropping a shopping bag in my general direction so that I should be better able to quickly bag up my own groceries, the parking lots with entrances (but no obvious exits) into dead end mazes – I’m used to it. I stopped recognizing those types of things as strange.

I like to think I’m less American now, more Israeli. American, in this context, is both literal - seeing things through American lenses - and a euphemism for 'not totally acclimated to life in Israel'.  I  make fun of Bob – since he travels, I say he’s been here just about half as long as me.  When things strike him as odd I tease him for being so American still.

But then today happened.  

And suddenly it’s like I just fell off the Nefesh b’Nefesh flight. Like I’m still in the airport in a delirious tailspin wondering if I made the right choice between the four national health insurance providers. Feeling So. Very. American.

What happened?

My oldest daughter left the house yesterday morning at 5:30am to get a ride to meet the school bus for her class trip – an overnight somewhere in the north. Mind you, I start out so very Israeli in the beginning of the story, not sweating the details, knowing it’s all under control, that my independent daughter can handle her packing, her transportation, her trip-related responsibilities.

She called me an hour later from a friend’s phone to let me know she’d lost her phone, probably in her friend’s dad’s car. I told her not to worry.

Next I heard from her was 9 o’clock this morning. She called from a counselor’s phone to let me know she is sick with fever. And that she is in Katzrin (4 hours north of Efrat). And that she was told the best thing to do was to take a bus from Katzrin to Tiberias, from Tiberias to Jerusalem, from Jerusalem to Efrat.

Me: They want you to go alone with fever for 4 hours on an Egged bus?

She explained how it was 40 degrees Celcius (104F) in Katzrin and there was no way she could stay in the campground or go on the tiyul or sit on the school bus.

The air conditioned Egged bus was sounding better already.

She needed to hang up and I used the opportunity to quickly consult with an Experienced Friend.

Me: Babs needs to get home from the tiyul in Katzrin. She has fever. They want to send her on the Egged bus. She doesn’t have a phone. Is that okay?

Experienced Friend, clearly understanding my hesitation: Listen - it’s Israel. She will be okay. She can borrow someone’s phone on the bus if she has to reach you. Send her on the bus. It will be fine.


I called the number from which she had last called me. The madricha (counselor) answered. I told her to make sure Barbara left with money and Tylenol.

Suddenly she called me from a new number to let me know her friend had loaned her a phone. I wished her a good trip and thought to myself it’s good she will arrive home before Bob even wakes up in NY because if he knew this was going on I don’t think he could handle it.

As she told me later, she did have a good first leg of the trip. The bus was filled with older Russian Israeli women all speaking to each other in Russian. The driver took a most scenic route, down the eastern side of the Kineret and back up to Tiberias.

When she called me from the Central Bus Station in Tiberias to tell me she had a 2 hour wait for the Jerusalem bus I cringed. At this point, I know for certain, Bob would have FREAKED OUT.

Me: Stay near soldiers. And women with babies.

Two hours is a long time for a 15 year old with fever and a suitcase to be loitering in a bus station. In any country.

As it turns out she found a group of English speaking tourists. Christians from South Africa doing a Global Challenge where they spend a year visiting every country in the world carrying just their backpacks and living as locals.

She helped them figure out the bus schedule and eventually they all boarded the crowded bus to Jerusalem (after which they were moving on to Bethlehem).

Three hours later I met her at the Central Bus Station in Jerusalem.

On the way I had called back Experienced Friend because I just had to understand what was happening.

Me: my daughter is on a tiyul in the north, is SICK WITH FEVER, and they send her home alone on an Egged bus?

Experienced Friend: Yup.

Me: No teacher calls me?

EF: Nope.

Me: This is normal?

EF: This is Israel. Kids are independent. Kid gets sick on a tiyul, they put that kid on a bus home.

Me: Wow. Just wow.

And so I finally got my independent Israeli teenager back. She had been ready to take yet another bus back to Efrat and was none the worse for the wear, excited to tell me about all the old ladies and young tourists she’d met along the way. Also she was thrilled to have gotten a map from the (fancier than Egged) bus she took out of Katzrin. She looked a little worn but she clearly was okay.

When I told Bob the story via Face Time I could see his mind working, thinking how he would have reacted if he’d been here. He looked pretty freaked out as we spoke!

About 7 hours later as she lay on the floor and I recognized the tell-tale signs of dehydration, I was grateful she was home. I was sure to include the fact that she’d made a four hour bus trip alone from the north with fever on a 40C day part of the intake at the local medical center when we went for some IV fluids, and she got the requisite sympathy from the American nurse and doctor. Except she didn’t need it. Only I did.