Thursday, November 16, 2017

In college I studied about The Yanomami of the Amazon. Some cultural anthropologist had gone to live with them and written an ethnography about their culture and their ways. It sounds so complicated and exotic. Until I realized I can play cultural anthropologist and report here on the culture and observed ways of The Israeli's of "The Land".  And I can do it all before lunch. 

First of all, "The Land". Yes, Israeli's refer to Israel as The Land. Where are you from? I am from here, from The Land. 

You can learn a lot about the inhabitants of The Land by spending a few minutes on line in the local pharmacy. Whole shelves dedicated to lice treatment and dry scalp evoke images of Pharoah having a last laugh as he chases out Hebrews from the Nile Basin to a place where the water is so filled with limestone there isn't one Israeli who is not plagued with doubt as to whether their itchy head is a result of actual lice or of limestoney-water-induced-dry-scalp. 

Israel is a small country. We do a lot with small spaces. Our local pharmacy is a great example. Not more than 12 x 12 (feet, not meters), theoretically, you can come in and wait on line. Theoretically, you can even sit in a chair while you wait. But imagine that 12 x 12 foot space filled with 5 or 6 more bodies and tell me how it's really working out. Anyway, in the pharmacy, there are rules.

Even though it must be obvious you cannot light up in the adjoining medical clinic (there are no signs about smoking out there at all), it could be that there is a strong urge to smoke while waiting in the small pharmacy area. And so you are warned. Maybe you want to smoke while you talk on the phone. A forbidden combination.

In fact, no talking at all. I call this the "No Israeli's allowed" sign. They give a lot of explanation with it to really convince why you need to follow these rules.
In case you didn't notice it the first two times, remember not to smoke and talk on your phone while in the pharmacy.

In the Torah, The Land is described (by Gd, to  Avraham) as being from the West to the East to the North and to the South. So I guess it's in this spirit of inheriting The Land that the signs are placed on all four walls of the pharmacy. Because who knows which blessed direction your eyes may wander as you reach for that trusty smoke...
Now there are rules of privacy which, as a pseudo cultural anthropologist, I would guess are written because they run counter to the nature of the population they are targeting.
But maybe the writer of the rules also knows not to expect too much from his audience. The 4 x 3 (foot) space in which you stand is an officially defined orb of "personal space" the pharmacy is trying to impose on you. Anyone who has changed or withdrawn money in this country knows that personal space is not a natural part of the Israeli cultural norm. So even this small demand may be hard for some to follow...
Israelis really believe in this special honey that wards off colds in the winter. I have a friend in Brooklyn who often asks me to send her some of it. It translates to something like "little bit of strength". We welcome winter with greetings of "A healthy winter to you" and we load up on little bits of strength. But for kids, we (of course) turn that strength into a Jelly Candy vitamin. I had to cut this one out of our lives because, between the strawberry chewable B-12 (they SAY it helps ward off lice) and  the white chocolate probiotic chewable, my kids were getting a little TOO excited about vitamins.
Ever seen an Israeli family hiking? Every member down to the baby is wearing a hat and carrying a water bottle. Even in the winter. And so, even in the winter, we still live in the Middle East with all its inherent UV rays.  You won't find Banana Boat  here. You will find an abundance of overpriced 50 SPF sun block.
But don't be a fryer. A fryer is that mom who is called to pick up her kid from a bat mitzvah at 10pm and 6 other kids jump into her car asking for a lift home. Where are their parents? Home, NOT BEING FRYERS. Look carefully at the price and notice the lower, significantly cheaper price. THAT is the price a non-fryer should always pay for sunscreen. Even if it is not marked as the price. Paying 89.90 NIS for sunscreen makes you a fryer. Sorry I'm digressing. Native Israelis are not fryers.
My daughter keeps bugging me to do the Psych Pineapple Challenge where you toss a pineapple from person to person while giving some free publicity to the new Psych movie. I told her it would be way funnier to toss a can of pineapple since it's definitely bigger (and cheaper) than an Israeli pineapple.

Apparently she doesn't care about real humor as much as she does about being featured on some Psych movie promo. Go figure.

I used to call this, "Hint you might be living in a third world country"

Until today. Something about the contrast between the Italian tile and the laser quality print of the sign made me think a little deeper. Like Freud deep. Like how you are pretty much shaped (or totally messed up) in the first 8 years of life. So if we take that to a national level, anyone who suffered through what passed as plumbing in the early development of the state cannot, in good conscience, NOT GIVE THIS ADVICE. Now I will tell you that you can pinpoint the age of an Israeli and the approximate year their home was built based on what they do with their toilet tissue but we can just leave off here. And you could make a coffee table book with photographs of these signs from all over The Land. West, East, North, South. They are EVERYWHERE.

This one happens to be hanging in the bathroom in Rami Levy but now that I've pointed it out to you, you'll notice it every single time and think of me.

When I first moved here, it struck me as odd that men were doing grocery shopping, doctor visits, and school drop-off with some real regularity. I simply don't come from that. For whatever it's worth, those things were generally the domain of the mom. Fast forward 8 years and I don't even give it a thought any more. Except that today I did. Two older men (like 10 years older than me - not THAT old) were catching up in the produce aisle. Something about it let me hear them chatting without tuning in to what they were saying and had me thinking, "Wow, isn't this so cute? And so Israeli - the men swapping menu ideas and shopping for produce..." when suddenly one of them turned to me and I had to quickly adjust my tuner to process his Hebrew. He was pointing to the cucumbers and talking about a teaspoon. It took me half a minute but then I repeated what I thought he said back to him. Confirmed. If you put a teaspoon into your bag of cucumbers, they will last for 3 weeks in the fridge without spoiling.  The cuteness just bore fruit.

I said you could learn a lot about a people and its culture before lunch here in Israel so let me tell you what I did after Rami Levy...

I picked up 4 random strangers waiting at a bus stop for a bus or a ride - whatever comes first - to Jerusalem. This is the phenomenon of tremping. And there is a whole tremping etiquette which boils down to what was expected of children in the 1950s - trempists are to be seen and not heard. They CAN be smelled (teenage boys either smell like an excessive amount of Axe Spray or like an excessive amount of time without a shower - with NO middle ground), which is probably its own topic but this is why we have windows in the car. So I enjoyed my music with the quiet company of strangers all the way to Jerusalem and then dropped them off here and there along the way. While all kinds of people tremp, today's crew happened to be men in their late 20s-early 30s. Of course tremping etiquette kept me from asking them what they are doing out and about in the middle of the day but again, such things are really quite normal in a country with an "up to 6 day work" week where people get their own random "free day" in the middle of the week. So there's tremping.

And my destination? The furniture store. Who called me yesterday screaming that my broken chair had not only been fixed, it had been SITTING IN THE STORE SINCE LAST WEEK. And in case it wasn't clear to me, THE STORE IS NOT A WAREHOUSE.

In front of the furniture store is a parking spot for loading and unloading only. There is a special sign. I pull into the spot, put on my hazards, and walk toward the store just as a delivery truck pulls up behind my car and starts beeping. I give him the Israeli "just a minute" hand gesture

I once watched an interview with Natalie Portman and they asked her what's her favorite curse in Hebrew. She giggled and then said it and then sort of translated it. I was stunned! It was also my late father in law's favorite curse! What a coincidence! Except that it turns out, there just aren't a lot of choices. I'm not a linguist* but I'd say there are all of about two possible curses available in actual Hebrew. Now the first one is okay. You say it to a man. And you are calling him the son of a biblical inn-keeper. The second one, well, it's about your mamma. So this guy, he responds to my hand gesture with a REALLY LOUD "koos EHHHH mech". I don't think he thought he would see me again. I definitely don't think he thought I would come out of the furniture store one minute later with a chair on my back and walk straight up to his window never relinquishing eye contact and ask him, What was that you wanted to tell me regarding my mother? He mumbled an apology while I extolled the virtues of patience (Savalanooooot, Habibi. Savlanoooot) and made my way back to the car. He backed up his truck to give me space to open my trunk. My new friend, the impatient truck driver, who is just like Natalie Portman and my father in law, of blessed memory. Just to the extent that they are all Israeli.

*UPDATE: yeah, that curse (like all the others anyone ever uses) is in Arabic as well. I SAID I WASN'T A LINGUIST! Anyway, don't take it from me, take it from Natalie! 

Monday, February 20, 2017

swirling thoughts #236 - the thoughts are swirling in multiple languages

So I've been busy. Studying to become an English teacher. Which is good because, compared to my Hebrew, my English is GREAT. The crazy thing is half my teachers are British so I'm also learning a second language as they casually lay these rare linguistic bombs on me as if they are totally normal. Like "streaming cold". Even the dictionary acknowledges it as "British":
British attributive (of a cold) accompanied by copious running of the nose and eyes.
‘she's got a streaming cold’
Meanwhile, I'm standing firm with my grammar teacher that a New Yorker never has to use the present perfect tense, ever. Even if we've just seen the Queen we will say, I just saw the Queen. Whereas the Brits really need to keep to proper form and announce, "I've just seen the Queen."
But I digress.

So in order to become an English teacher in Israel, one has to not only accept the yoke of the Queen's English, one must be able to operate smoothly in Hebrew. After all, there are parents meetings, Ministry of Education-bureaucratic-fun-stuff, and of course, the teachers' lounge! And towards this higher calling, actually a life goal of mine, which I will always and forever refer to from here on in as "operating smoothly in Hebrew", I spent the last week studying like crazy for a Hebrew Proficiency Exam.*

Somewhere in the middle of all this I had occasion to visit the hardware store.  As I looked up and saw SKAY SPRAY it occurred to me that 1. SKAY is not a word in English (irrespective of the gross things Urban Dictionary has to say) 2. The translation of SKAY into the exact same thing in Hebrew made me know the inevitable truth - Israelis think SKAY SPRAY means something in English. I took the SKAY SPRAY to the counter and asked what it is. They read the label and said it is some kind of spray for the inside of the car.

And there it hit me. I saw those meaningless words in English and never even thought to read the rest of the label in Hebrew. ME! Who strives to operate smoothly in Hebrew! I went back to the shelf and then I started noticing the pictures on the products that didn't have any English at all. But like really noticing the pictures and trying to figure out what the products were based on the pictures alone. Because if there is no English on the product, it's like I'm missing one of my senses and so my ability to hyper-focus on the graphic is intensified. Who even needs to read Hebrew when you can discern graphics with this kind of precision?

This is something I'm pretty sure is called "3D perfect vision granules for viewing nature"

 This is "Digging to the Earth's Core Gel"

 This needed no figuring out because, Duh! It's Dizidor!

 This is "Fragrant Fireplace Aroma Air Freshener for Stubborn Gym Smells"

 This, of course, is "Make America Great" Spray

 I love this! It's "No More Lonely Plants!"

This is for when the plants have had enough

This is "Parrot Spray"

 This is "Rat in a Box"

Or as we say in English, "Ratrim Blox"

 Google Translate, Dictionary.Com and even Urban Dictionary are not really helping with the relevant meaning in Hebrew or English of SKAY SPRAY
And now that I'm thinking about it, I'll bet those guys behind the counter only guessed at it based on the steering wheel in the graphic.

 This one's my favorite and where has it been all my life?
"Snail Polish"

 And just in time for Purim, "Spray on Muscles"

When I took this picture in the pharmacy and explained to the pharmacist about my post, he looked at me like I was speaking Chinese. (note to self, must post about "everything unknown to Jews is referred to as Chinese" another time). Evidently, when one really does master "operating smoothly in Hebrew" these graphics fade to the background and the Hebrew jumps out and explains the use of the product (in this case, it is for back pain and not to combat bad breath).  Until I reach that moment of rapture, I will enjoy my ignorant giggles.

*I took three practice exams, learned about 200 new words, finally learned the difference between "to sacrifice" and "to visit the Caribbean" (it's just one letter off), I studied Curious George in Hebrew like it was a Holy Text - my kids dared not lose my page, I read all the school emails in their original Hebrew form, I read all my Israeli Groupon offers in their original Hebrew form - aside from my fun at the Hardware Store, I embraced the challenge of becoming one who operates smoothly in Hebrew. So I can teach the Queen's English to Israeli students, כמו שצריך

Thursday, April 7, 2016

Rafi Randy Novick, Of Blessed Memory

One of the nicest things to get used to, living in the Jewish homeland, is that so many of the people in my daily life – almost all, in fact – are Jewish. Neighbors, shop owners, gardeners, the guys who came to paint my house, assemble my IKEA furniture, install my shower doors, the dentist, the contractor, the barber, the exterminator, the roofer, the electrician.... You get my point.

Many, if not all of these people also live here in my community. Which means we have kids in school together. We bump into each other in the grocery store. And at weddings. We pray together. And so, the relationship with most of them is more than just about the task at hand – we talk and share – over clogged drains, with Mr. Thirsty in our mouth, with dryer parts disassembled all over the floor....

And so this is how Rafi Novick, z"l came into our lives, seven years ago when we arrived in Israel with American appliances and really, without a clue. (Israeli’s don’t have hot water pipes connecting to their washers?) He’s smoothed out life’s bumps for us so many times along the way I’ve lost count. Rabbi Riskin pointed out that one cannot live a purely spiritual existence. We are on the ground, holy as it may be. We need to wash our clothes and cook our food in order to be able to devote our efforts to loftier pursuits.

Rafi understood this more than anyone – he never met a repair challenge he didn't embrace. Even if embracing it meant sending you to a different repair man with a specialty. And then following up! The last time he was in my house, just last week, he was so excited I’d found a clue in the ongoing mystery of “My oven always shorting out” (clue was ‘steam’) that he offered to take home the manual and try to figure out the component most likely to be affected by steam. And all that was only a side conversation - he was here fixing my freezer!

A man so brilliant, he had encyclopedic knowledge about countless topics from Torah to government to rock ‘n roll to DNA. In Rabbi Allan Greenspan’s words, "To be with Rafi was to be a student."

Brilliant yet humble. He would listen to you speak and truly learn from you. Even if he was just learning how you think or feel about something. Rav Oren said it perfectly. Rafi wanted to know and understand everything in a very clear way.

I never met a person like Rafi before. Genius. Humble. Hilarious. Interesting. Interested. A student of life and a keen observer of human behavior. He once clocked me as a person who is always cold and hadn’t been opening the windows much. It’s true but how did he know? He pointed out the delicate vase I had sitting right in front of the kitchen window. He said he can always tell who’s cold by what they keep in front of their windows!

Rafi was a lover of Eretz Yisrael. He recently shared with me a treasured memory of laying down to block the road with Nadia Matar and other supporters of Women In Green in order to pressure the government to open the Tekoa –Yerushalayim Road. He told me how much he respected everyone who fights for Eretz Yisrael. He told me how much he respected me because I take women to Hebron. I never got to tell him that my Hebron ladies prayed so hard for his refuah last night in Maarat Hamachpela.

Instead I woke up to the inconceivable news that Rafi was taken from us. As if he were ours. As if anyone or anything is actually ours. It's all a gift. Every moment, every encounter, every experience. From the hespidim, we know Rafi lived his life with this awareness. Appreciating every moment with his beloved family, never squandering an opportunity to help someone and simultaneously learn something. Or teach something.

Rav Oren invoked the words of Or Zaruah in describing Rafi.
Or zaruah, latzadik, ul’yishrei lev simcha. (Light is sown for the righteous and joy for the upright at heart.)
Rafi was both – a Tzaddik and Yeshar – righteous and upright and he touched the lives of so many people.

"He always helped me, even if I was having a rough time and couldn't pay right away - he never left me without a working oven for Shabbat, always just told me to "pay when you can".  He was so kind, so generous. We were so comfortable with him. He could come into my house with the code. My kids all knew him. They can't believe he's gone." (long time customer from the Geffen)

"We always used him to fix our appliances. Somewhere along the way he said, 'you know, you can tell when people are your friends. guys are my friends.' He was generous with his time and knowledge. He fixed little things without charging us, because he said 'this isn't a job, it's just friends helping each other out.'" (long time customer from the Dekel)

"He had such a special presence. He was patient, kind, honest, with wonderful midot, always greeting everyone with a smile. Truly a fine and true person on all levels. It such a loss to our people. He had such pride in his wife and son." (long time customer from the Zayit)

“Rafi was an excellent professional technician and trustworthy, honest, sincere, and reliable. But, so much more than that…we would discuss, while he was working. He was not just Rafi the technician but he was also an historian, a political analyst, a psychologist, a philosopher. He had such interesting opinions and insights and anecdotes to life and everything going on in the world. It was always a pleasure talking with him. He was informative and gave me new insights into the different things we discussed and all this while being so dependable in his line of work. He would be there to help and I cannot emphasize enough – his honesty, sincerity, good nature, and sense of humor. He was a wonderful, kind, sweet human being. He will be so missed.” (customer of many years, also from the Zayit) 

His friend Eliyahu Grossman described Rafi:
“Rafi would be embarrassed by all of the attention... Despite not wanting to be at the center of attention, he was quick to help anyone in need. Whether it was Erev Shabbat or Erev Chag, something in town was bound to break and people would panic, and he would always make himself available. He loved 70s music and often would tell me stories of some of the bands, and more than once he would tell me about Bruce Springsteen. He will be missed.”

Rav Reuven Rosenstark, quoting the Mishna on Perkei Avot asked, "Who is a respected person? One who respects others." Rav Reuven knew Rafi as a neighbor, as a fellow congregant in Shul, and as an appliances repairman. In his words, "Rafi gave everyone respect. Even though he knew so much more than most people he met, he treated everyone as an equal. He always wanted you to understand." The Rav spoke about Rafi's legendary honesty and integrity. And his yesharut (literally, uprightness). Rabbi Riskin said Rafi and his wife were such partners that he took on the characteristic of her name, Yeshara.  If he did a job for someone who had done him a favor he wouldn't take money – as a hakarat hatov. 

Shmuel Bowman said every time with Rafi was like a meeting at the Rebbe's tisch. Comparing his repair visits to shiurei torah, he noted "Rafi came to remind us of and connect us to the Geula."  Rafi's deep understanding of "vehahavta lareacha kamocha" let him synthesize friendships and professional relationships, getting deep inside the questions asked of him. “Who's gonna remind us of the Geula?” Shmuel asked. “We will need to remind each other.” 

Rafi's beloved wife described him as her best friend and soul mate with whom she shared everything. With his "bizarre sense of humor" (her words!), his job in his family was to make his two sisters laugh. She described Rafi as a private person and a loyal friend who strove for shalom with others. She spoke about his special relationship with Netanel and about his love of life and Eretz Yisrael. And of course, she mentioned his work ethic. “Rafi cared deeply about his customers and went above and beyond for them. Often. Usually. Always. He would be honored and amazed at how many people are here and he would say ‘Wow! All that for me?’”

I can hear him saying it. Can’t you?


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.