Friday, December 25, 2009

The Cuboid and the Prime Minister

Here’s a good question to start off with: what is the correct term for a three dimensional rectangle, say something shaped like a shoe box? I didn’t know either, and I had to think of some way to describe something to my buddy, Ron as he, his wife Esther, and I were walking back to their house for Shabbat lunch. So I said that the object I had in mind was aquarium shaped. He thought that was kind of funny, but he admitted he couldn’t think of a better way to describe what I had in mind, even though he had one of these objects himself. And that is a glass container, which does in fact look like a five or ten gallon fish tank (for those of you who housed a collection of guppies sometime in your life) which you turn upside down and place within it your Hanukkah menorah, which you can now place outside your house and really publicize the miracle which is central to this holiday. (By the way, the correct answer is a ‘cuboid.’)
The point of my story was that exactly one week before (which was the first day of the holiday here (as it was wherever you might be in Exile) , I was doing exactly the same thing, walking this way with them – even though it is slightly out of my way; but good company is worth something – and after we parted company, I saw something lying on the sidewalk. On closer inspection, I realized that it was what remained of one of these aquariums. I can only surmise that some family had placed in on their balcony, and the heavy wind we had last Friday night blew it off. “Great,” I thought. “Someone is trying to do a mitzvah and all they wind up with is shards of glass strewn all over the sidewalk.”
Now a more pessimistic sort might have used that as a metaphor for Hanukkah this year. Things did not seem to be working out as well as I would have like them to. We had moved into our new apartment before Rosh Hashana (and I promise I will be writing more about that soon), and we ordered a few pieces of furniture and began having some work done, nothing extravagant, obvious things that most of you would have done: a fresh coat of paint, replacing sub-standard electrical wiring, making sure the roofs were water-proof, making sure everything worked the way it was supposed to, hanging pictures on the wall, being able to put out our books and our clothing. Repair and replace, as opposed to renovate. But the list kept getting longer and longer as new ‘surprises’ were uncovered, and it seemed at times that the workmen we were using (all highly recommended Jewish labor) were living in our apartment. I know that some of you know what that’s like; you can’t get anything else done when guys are banging, sawing, hammering, and always needing you to tell them what you want done. At some point, I began to adopt a strategy which I use with great frequency, very helpful in maintaining one’s equilibrium. Let’s say you’re waiting for a bus. You’re waiting a long, long time for a bus. And it’s cold. And it’s raining. And you’re getting soaking wet. And it seems that you have been waiting forever for this bus. Try the following mental exercise: “This too will pass. There will be a time when I am no longer waiting in the rain for this stupid bus. I will be in a warm, dry place. I will be………..(and you can fill in the blanks). You can annoy me by withholding your bus, but you can’t beat me.” As November rolled around, I began to say to myself,, “It seems chaotic and never-ending now, but by the time Hanukkah is here, everything will be finished, we will be enjoying our new apartment, and we should begin considering having some kind of housewarming party, a Hanukkat Habayit over Hanukkah. I could almost taste it: a week without having anybody come to fix something, or worse, waiting for someone to come and fix something.
Needless to say, Hanukkah did arrive, and…… our closet and bookcases were almost ready, and several projects were almost finished or almost started, or almost ready to be started, or…. (Can you pick out the key word here?) One area of concern is the roof in our machsan (storage area). What came with the apartment was an old, temporary roof made of corrugated plastic, demonstrably ready to leak, hence making the area unusable for storage; and forcing us to use what will be a guest room for storage. Gilad, our painter/handyman, started putting up a very elaborate tile roof on top of what we had, but he had to take it down and start again because it was too visible from the street and would bend our local building inspectors out of shape. And even if they didn’t notice it, it was the first day of THE BIG FREEZE – a much more global upset than our petty personal problems.
Some of you may be aware that our government has declared a freeze throughout Judea and Shomron/Judea and Samaria/the West Bank. So you might think that means that no one can go up to an unoccupied hilltop and put up a caravan. No, it doesn’t mean only that. OK. It must mean that you can’t begin new construction anywhere in an existing community. No, it doesn’t just mean that either. OK. Then it must mean that you can’t put on an addition to something that’s already built. No, but you’re getting warmer. What it does mean is that you can’t do anything in an existing community to an existing structure that would need a building permit. And if you’re still with me and have the stomach to ask: what would you need a building permit to do? The two favorite absurd but real examples are to put up a new pergola on your patio or balcony (very popular in this sunny climate) or to add a large air-conditioning unit (very popular in this sunny climate). Some of this is not completely clear. For example, there was a latticed wooden roof on one of our balconies which the previous owner took down because it was falling apart. The metal supporting structure is still there; If we want to replace the pergola that was there before – so we can sit out on our balcony in the summer – will we be allowed to do so? And did we actually need a permit to put up a new roof? I hope not because we did it anyway.
A sense of uncertainly and profound skepticism surrounds this dubious activity: stopping any and all construction in a significant part of our country for ten months. The economic implications alone are staggering; I don’t know if anyone has become to assess the kazillions of shekels this will cost the economy. The very left-wing Supreme Court has implied that those affected may be entitled to remuneration from a government which apparently hadn’t given the slightest thought to the matter. Reimbursement would only apply to builders who can’t construct and people paying mortgages for virtual apartments. The irony is that the people who stand the most to lose – because they won’t able to sue – are the thousands of Arab laborers who will have lost their jobs in construction and related fields.
You may be asking the same question which a lot of us are asking: what is the point to this exercise in futility? What is it supposed to accomplish? Whom is it supposed to satisfy or impress? How will it help anything or anybody? And the biggie: what is the prime minister up to, and can anybody believe anything he says – like THE BIG FREEZE will only last for ten months? Netanyahu, to his credit, put his foot down and refused to stop construction anywhere in Jerusalem, making it clear to all and sundry that our eternal capital will not be the subject of any future negotiations. Fine. But if you are willing to freeze construction in Maale Adumim – which by general consent has always been considered untouchable – what message is being sent? Does that mean that our community of almost 40,000 people will be the subject of future territorial negotiations? And if we are placed on the bargaining table, what about Efrat with its 15,000 residents? And then what about the smaller communities of 1,000 or fewer people?
If you have seen photographs or videos of confrontations, of militant residents, even school children, manning the barricades against the soldiers and the police who are being sent in to prevent construction, the action is going on in these small communities. It is obvious to these communities that today’s police action is an exercise in preparation for possible expulsion in the future, and they are not going to leave without a fight. Here in Maale Adumim, people are more sanguine, and things are quiet. There are no inspectors, no police, no barricades, no kids staging sit-downs in the streets. Our mayor, Benny Kashriel, called a meeting a week or so ago to give a full report on what was happening. The turnout was, shall we say, disappointing. Probably half of the plenty-of-seats-available audience came from the relatively small Anglo community here, including one guy who was ready to sign up people for the Likud Party – still nurturing the belief that if there were only enough right-wing party members, we could wrest control of Likud from Bibi and company. Benny had a much bigger audience two days later at a mass rally near the Prime Minister’s residence in Jerusalem, which drew a crowd of between ten and thirty thousand people (depending on which paper you read), mostly young people who paid little attention to the speakers, a parade of well-meaning politicians vowing to continue building throughout Yehuda and Shomron. If only words were bricks and resolutions, mortar.. Our Benny said something to the effect of: “Bibi, for eighteen years you told me to build, and I did so. Now what are we supposed to do?” Boo-hoo. There were two or three Knesset members from Likud who spoke at the rally. Most of the other so-called right-wing members that Likud voters had pinned their hopes on have chosen to indicate their disapproval of THE FREEZE, but have heeded Netanyahu’s pleas for unity by doing nothing about it. In other words, keeping their party together is more important than keeping the country together.
Now there are some obvious parallels between today’s events in The Land and the so long ago struggles of the Maccabis against the Hellenists and the Syrian-Greeks, but why don’t I let you make the connections, dot the i’s and cross the t’s – if you choose to do so. Ever since I heard the bat mitzvah girl in New Jersey get up and claim that the modern-day Maccabis were the civil libertarians in America who were campaigning against the use of Hanukkah displays on public property, ever since then, I have understood the chameleon nature of this holiday and its heroes: that every Jewish group and cause today claims the Maccabis as its own. I haven’t heard of anyone yet who is saying that it’s the Israeli police who are the modern-day equivalent, but I wouldn’t be surprised.
So you can understand why I was less than my usual exuberant self as the holiday rolled around. And neither of our girls would be home to cheer me up for the start of the holiday. Barbara was suffering from muscle spasms in her back, so the latke production was at an all-time low. Last year, I came to the painful but inescapable conclusion that for the most part the local sufganiyot are not worth the caloric investment (the average Israeli gains about five pounds during these eight days).
Barbara’s back problems forced us to cancel the walking trips we had planned. But there was one excursion that I had intended to go on by myself: a field trip to photograph the Hanukkah lights in The Old City. The fellow running the event, Doug Guthrie, holds photographic workshops for the Association of Americans and Canadians in Israel; these are really for beginners only, and therefore I had never met up with him. This trip sounded like fun, whether or not I ‘learned’ anything or not. It would at least get me out of the house with my camera.
We were supposed to meet by the Zion Gate at 4:30, and that was just about when I was getting off the bus by the Jaffa Gate, which is a brisk fifteen minute walk away. I figured that I was going to be too late to meet up with the group, but that there would be no harm in trying. If nothing else, I could walk around on my own. Thank G-d for Israeli time! The group was still there when I showed up, huffing and puffing from my dash through The Old City. I handed over my thirty five shekels, and we were off. The small group of attendees was comprised mostly of Doug’s students, still learning how to use their point-and-shoot digital cameras, although there were a few of us with some experience. It became obvious to me very quickly that what Doug was looking for was very different from what I was, and that I needed to do things my way. Still, he had done this tour before, and knew where to go, which I would not have on my own.
We began to wander through the streets and alleys of the Jewish Quarter, seeking out hanukkiot and the fine Jews lighting them, up streets where I’ve been before and I could find again, and down alleyways which I would need a map to locate – and maybe a trail of breadcrumbs to get out again. We stopped first along Chabad Street, one of the main thoroughfares in the Quarter, in front of a gate which opened into a courtyard shared by a number of apartments. It was now the earliest possible minute that one could light candles – six plus the shamash – and the intrepid lighters were not going to delay doing their mitzvah for even a nano-second. One after another, men and children came out. They were not lighting inside their home or even in front of it; their hanukkiot were carefully placed in front of the gate, for maximum exposure, and each one was placed inside a glass enclosure (remember the cuboid?!) to make certain that the lights wouldn’t blow out. Most of us use little candles which perch precariously in their place in our menorah. Here the preference is for wicks sitting in oil; some put the oil in yahrtzeit-size glasses. Many of us have only one menorah per family. Here they have one per person, and some of these families have lots of persons! Looking closely at these artifacts, many with inscriptions on them, you realize how old they are, how many generations have used them, in how many countries, in what troubling times when miracles were sorely in need, before this evening on Chabad Street in the Jewish Quarter in our ancient capital. I was beginning to get the sense that something special was going on. We wandered on until we came to the large plaza where the venerable Hurva synagogue is being rebuilt from the rubble which the Jordanians turned it into. A crowd was gathering, and of course we stopped to find out what was going on. On the second floor of a building, a family was getting ready to light their candles, and below there were at least hundred people waiting and watching expectantly. When the husband realized what was going on, he motioned to the crowd; several people took him up on his offer and went up to his apartment. We could see the man, his wife, their children, their friends, and now the newcomers standing by the window of this modest apartment in a ‘million dollar’ neighborhood. Finally, the man began to light, and the crowd spontaneously burst out singing: “she assah nissim l’avoteinu…” Talk about publicizing the miracle! For years I have heard learned rabbis talking about this, in Hebrew, pirsumei mitzvah, and we have always dutifully placed our menorah in a window – even though in many of the places we lived nobody could possibly see our candles. I have been present about public ceremonies: Chabad was always good for that sort of thing: a prominent rabbi and a dignitary would be lifted in a cherry picker to light a fifteen or twenty foot high oil burning flame. But for the first time, standing in the plaza next to where the Hurva is being lovingly reconstructed, I witnessed and I understood on a visceral level what publicizing our miracles was all about. I witnessed and I understood how something done by an ordinary Jew in the privacy of his home can be raised to something transcendental. Of course, it helps to have an audience, especially an enthusiastic one, and it’s even better when the audience becomes part of the act. For me, it was as if the light of these candles had banished all the darkness. Not just the physical darkness which was beginning to surround us at 5:15 in the evening. This moment of true joy is the way things are supposed to be and can be – if only people wouldn’t work so hard at mucking things up.
The Jewish Quarter was filling with people. Everywhere you turned there were tour guides leading Jews and gentiles, explaining the significance of Hanukkah. Even in the out-of-the-way alleys into which we headed next, a hanukkiah in its glass cage would be carefully placed on a chair in front of a doorway, and fifty people would pass by, and then another fifty people. Great for maximizing the effect; not so great if you are trying to take a picture! The little group of photographers kept going about its business, although at some point I had to leave, in order to get back to Maale Adumim by 7:30 for Nachum’s Wednesday night Gemarah shiur. I managed to find my way out of the Jewish Quarter onto the road which leads back to the Jaffa Gate. There is a restaurant one passes in the Armenian Quarter, and as I walked by I heard a familiar melody being played softly. A Christmas Carol! How many of these would I have heard back in the wilds of New Jersey eight days before December 25?
The following night, I was sitting, hunched over my laptop, too tired to do anything useful, but not quite ready to go to bed. Looking over my e-mail, I noticed a Zogby poll to which I had not responded. Several months ago, we had gotten a call on our New Jersey line from the Zogby organization. They were sending me stuff to an out-of-date e-mail address and were trying to locate me to re-include me in their surveys. I explained to the nice man on the phone that we are living in Israel and they probably wouldn’t want to include me. But no, they were still very much interested in my opinions, and so I gave them my Yahoo address. So now, the least I should is respond to the questionnaire they sent me. That seemed to be as much as I was capable at that moment anyway. I opened the attachment. First they asked where I live, and I checked off the box that said ‘out of the country.’ Not surprisingly, they were interested in my opinion of the incumbent American president and topics like global warming. Finally there was a long section on Holiday shopping. Was I going to spend more or less this year than last year? How to answer that? Let’s see. This year we spent eight shekels for a box of candles. Last year, I think we found a guy selling them on the street next to Mahane Yehuda for six shekels. So that would be more this year. On the other hand, we – or I should say I – spent much more last year trying to find a decent sufganiah. So that would be less this year. I wound up by ducking the question and indicating ‘the same,’ but I’m not sure my spending patterns are what Zogby had in mind. I went up to bed thinking about all the ‘holiday’ music that wouldn’t be invading my space this year and all the shopping days until you-know-when I would again be missing, tucked away as we are in The Land. I could tell you about how I fell asleep counting reindeer, but I would be making that up.
If you are concerned that we didn’t have enough to eat over Hanukkah, rest assured that we did. I finally broke down and got one filled donut for me and one glazed one for Barbara, which she ate while resting on our sofa – with Mimi, the geriatric cat, lying on her stomach. Our feline normally does not go after human food, but she took a lively interest in what Barbara was eating and received her fair share, proving that even cats are willing to participate in pirsumei mitzvah. Barbara’s back improved enough to allow her to make one enormous batch of latkes which she, I, and Natania devoured in one weight-ignoring session. Saturday night, when Shabbat and Hanukkah were over, our friend Devorah came over to make her fried delicacy, funnel cakes. I usually go shopping once a week, and try to make certain that we don’t run out of things in between. By my reckoning, we had about six ounces of canola oil, enough to last until my next shopping trip, but I hadn’t factored in filling a frying pan for Devorah. There was nothing to do but head off to MisterZol to purchase a three liter jug. When I got back, I announced that I knew for certain that Hanukkah was over. Devorah was brash (or foolish) enough to ask me how I knew. “If it were still Hanukkah, the oil we had would have been enough for eight days of funnel cakes.”

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

The answer is.............

It is always a good idea to start a story at the beginning – or at least to indicate when you somehow stumble over it – although sometimes it’s hard to figure out where the yarn actually started. Saves a lot of wear and tear on the grey cells of your audience if you at least try to keep them in the loop.
I began thinking about making this resolution about two months ago. What happened was this: a woman put a post on one of the aliyah-oriented e-mail lists I belong to with the following concern. She and her husband were planning on making aliyah, but “somebody” told them that a lot of kids in the dati leumi (National religious) schools here use drugs and she was concerned. Personally, I have very little patience with people whose lives are ruled by what “somebody” tells them – as if “somebody” ever knows anything or anybody. My first thought was to respond by saying that this is not a new situation, citing an obscure midrash (story) to the effect that when the twelve spies who were sent by Moshe to scout out The Land, and ten of them came back with a negative report, part of it was the claim that all of the teenagers hereabouts were smoking marihuana. That part was edited out of the Torah, but the story remains. However, I decided not to get involved in the discussion. After all, besides my extrordinary wit and the high quality of my prose, what did I have to contribute? My kids didn’t go to school here; so I have no first hand information to impart. My reticence left the field open to several women who sent in long, earnest contributions on the do’s and don’t’s of child-raising here. One of these ladies stated unequivocally that ex-pat American parents should not send their children back to The States for summer vacation. Don’t ask me how that relates to the original question about alleged drug use here in The Land, but she did write it.
It is very tempting with these e-mail groups to give advice – especially when the senders are asking for it. “What should I do? What should I bring? Where this; when that? But maybe, just maybe, telling people you’ve never met how they should live their lives is not such a good idea. Now let’s make some distinctions. In my lexicon, there is a difference between a suggestion (someone you might want to speak to on the subject is……), somewhat stronger, a recommendation ( I highly recommend X, a leading authority on the subject), information (The Ministry of Health compiles statistics on drug use amongst teenagers), and that dreaded bugaboo, advice (whatever you do, don’t………..). There is all the difference in the world between being helpful and being bossy. So I have decided that as much as possible I’m going to shut down my advice-dispensing machine, once and for all.
Having said that, I think what I’m going to do when people who are preparing to make aliyah ask, as they often do, what should they bring with them?, I am going to make the following SUGGESTION. “Here’s something I didn’t do, and therefore I am constantly forced to improvise on the topic. I wish I had a list of everything, everything, that went wrong back in The States because it is so easy to lose perspective when you’re having a difficulty here and you forget you had exactly the same problem back where you came from – whether it was the time it took you half an hour to find a disinterested sales person to assist you; or the poor quality of electrical repair in the house you just bought; or when you spent forty five minutes on line at the post office to get a package which they claimed they tried to deliver, but you had been home the entire day and the postman never came; or when some moron-who-should-be-banned-from-driving-for-life cut you off and you almost came to blows. The biggest SNAFU we have had since we arrived in The Land was getting EZ-Pass in New Jersey to remove what they charged us after we returned their transponder and were thousands of miles from their nearest bridge, tunnel, or highway. It took Barbara five months of calling, going back and forth between them and our credit card company before the matter was finally resolved. When you keep in mind that stupidity, over-zealous bureaucracy, and inertia are widespread throughout the planet it makes it somewhat easier to deal with the occasional (?) problem one faces here.
This need to create a sense of calm and equilibrium was whirling through my mind the day, several weeks ago when Barbara and I met Tina at the belly-of-the-beast, the office of The Rabbinate in Tel Aviv. Tina, as I believe I have mentioned, is planning to get married here in The Land next May, and the first official step was to get The Rabbinate to acknowledge that she is Jewish. Difficult enough for anybody, but especially for anyone who was born elsewhere, and even more especially for someone like her who was born in Odessa, part of the former Soviet Union. (The percentage of forged documents of all kinds in Russian is apparently significantly higher than any others). As I spent almost thirty years working for a similar kind of operation, the New York City government, I figured out P.D.Q. what the Rabbinate’s method of operation is: whatever documents, whatever forms, whatever papers you produce are the wrong documents, the wrong forms, the wrong papers; and, what’s more, whoever signed any of them is the wrong person. Even if it’s a rabbi, it’s the wrong rabbi, because whoever it was isn’t on their twenty year old list, which includes some who are no longer alive. Easy, once you understand the rules. As an aside, let me say this: there are many Jews in The Land who find their way back to Torah Judaism because they come to conclude that our several thousand year old religion is more sensible than the secular world they see around them (the latest example I have come across Doron Sheffer, an Israeli who played college basketball for the University of Connecticut and was an all-star in the Israeli league for many years, who now wears a skullcap as big as a basketball), and because there are many sincere, dedicated rabbis infused with the light of Torah. But none of this has anything to do with The Rabbinate here, who seem to do nothing but fight amongst themselves and turn people off.
The first time Tina showed up at their headquarters with all her documents, they told her to come back with pictures of her family. Because she lives about five minutes away, she zipped home and brought back the scads of pictures she happened to have. At this point, you may be wondering: how does having pictures of your parents, grandparents, extended family prove that you are Jewish? Don’t non-Jews also have pictures of their families? I was wondering the same thing too; I don’t have an answer for you. Then you might be thinking: supposing somebody didn’t have scads of pictures to show the Rabbinate? Would that mean that you’re not Jewish? What about the hundreds of young singles who have made aliyah from America with fewer belongings than my grandparents brought with them to America and left the photo albums behind in New Jersey? What about those people – and I include myself in this category – who would be unable to produce a copy of their parents’ ketuba – either because their parents were not married under religious auspices or whose parents did not consider this document to be important enough to save? You want to hear something really absurd: I can walk into any beit knesset in Israel (although there are some I would not choose to enter) and get up to recite the priestly blessing, and no one will question whether I am or am not a Cohen. But I probably would have a difficult time convincing The Rabbinate that I am even Jewish. I honestly have no idea who married my parents (and It’s a little too late to ask), and the truth is that while the rabbi who married us happened to know Barbara, he had no idea who I was. Plus the chances that he is on The Rabbinate’s approved list are about equal to my successfully swimming The English Channel. We do have a photo album from that event, and most of the men are wearing yarmulkes; whether that would count as evidence or not, I don’t know. There are no pictures of our – my brother’s and my – bar mitzvah (just as well: immediately after the Shabbat morning service, the invited guests walked around the corner to our apartment where the ‘reception’ took place). Somewhere in the boxes we have not unpacked there is a printed invitation to the bar mitzvah of Frank and Fred Casden on a particular date in late February in 1954 at the Young Israel of Moshulu Parkway in The Bronx. Would that count as evidence? When Natania visited Barbara’s mother in Florida earlier this year, I had her bring back a copy of her ketuba. Barbara’s mother and father were married – purely by coincidence – by a prominent Orthodox rabbi (in his office) on L’ag B’Omer when her father had a day off from the military. It is quite possible that the rabbi who married them during W.W. II is still on the official list of The Rabbinate. That might help Natania if she needs to deal with these folks down the line.
Even though I might have trouble proving that I am Jewish, I would qualify, along with Barbara, as a witness that Tina is Jewish – as we are not related by blood to our daughter. And this is the reason why were on the express bus from Maale Adumim to Tel Aviv which leaves our corner around 6:15 in the AM, arriving at the Arlazaroff station at 8 in the AM, giving us time to down a cup of coffee and some kind of pastry en route to the HQ of The Rabbinate, which we located by the following the guy n the frock coat the last block or so.
The letter Tina had received advised her to show up with her documentation and her witnesses at 8:45 and go to room X; no appointment was necessary. Of course, as the clock neared 9 in the AM, lots of other people began filling the chairs outside room X. And they all had appointments! At about five minutes before the hour, the clerk came out and posted the day’s schedule. Tina, to her credit, was in this guy’s face, trying to make certain that she would get in to see the panel of rabbis. But there was another couple, also in the clerk’s face. The two of them, we discovered, had lived in Miami for fourteen years, returning recently to Israel, and naturally spoke good English. Their problem? The list began at 9, and their appointment was for 8:50! Lucky for all of us, the man knew somebody downstairs at the reception desk, so he managed to get him and his wife taken care of, and somebody sent a message up to make sure Tina got seen. I have to say, I began to feel sorry for the clerk, who was the gatekeeper. Every time he came out of the office, everyone who was waiting converged on him, trying to get in to see the rabbis. This prompted me to coin one of my justly renowned aphorisms: Israel is the only country in the world where everybody is “next.”
As we were sitting there, I began to wonder: Why were all these people there, waiting to see a panel of rabbis? Certainly it was not to prove they were Jewish in order to get married. And then I took a look at the list posted on the wall. It looked like the kind of sheet we would find at our health clinic when we had an appointment: the list would have our ID number, our first name, and the time of our appointment (and at the Maccabi clinic, the time listed is pretty much when you get called). But the list at The Rabbinate gave your last name, and why you were there. A quick peek would tell you that the people ahead of you were getting divorced, the people after you had some issue with an inheritance, and so on. Who needs privacy anyway?!!
Tina was nervous, Barbara, whose opinion of the Orthodox establishment in Israel on a good day is lower than a grasshopper’s kneecap, was stewing; but I was maintaining my sense of equilibrium. We were, after all, on the wrong side of the desk at a welfare center in New York, one I must have worked in so many years before. And I kept thinking about my dealings with NYCERS (which, as you all know, stands for the New York City Employees Retirement System; and even if you don’t, I do, because they provide me with a hefty check every month). When we moved to our new apartment several months ago (something to be chronicled shortly), we had to change our address with a host of banks, insurance companies, brokerage firms, you name it. Each one had a different procedure for notifying them of our move. Some required a phone call, some an e-mail, some a signed letter faxed to them. But the most problematic procedure came from NYCERS. In response to an e-mail, they sent me a form to fill out and have notarized. I looked at the form and did what any red-blooded ex-pat would do: I put it down and ignored it for several weeks, gathering my strength for the task ahead. For the record, my pension, as well as my social security, is deposited monthly in Citibank in New York. So NYCERS only needs my address to send me a statement for tax purposes. OK. I was finally ready to make the phone call to their customer service people. Instead of the usual “All our representatives are busy serving other customers” message I was expecting, I got an intricate explanation of the voice recognition system they were trying to establish, which meant I had to recite my ID number three times, getting into an argument with the automated voice over what I had said. Then I had to pick one from a series of questions, to which only I would know the correct answer and further establish my identity. The list was rattled off so fast that I couldn’t make sense of them. They may have included: What is the name of your uncle’s favorite dog?, and In what year did the Peloponnesian War begin? I thought I heard something about my mother’s birthday, but before I could remember that the correct answer is February 7 (a bit of information I haven’t needed to use for eight year), before I could say something, anything, I was connected to a live operator. What I was hoping to accomplish was to get them to agree to a waiver of the notarization. As I explained to the nice young man, notaries here in The Land are not everybody and his brother, and the fee is not the chump change it is back in Brooklyn where NYCERS is located. Here notaries are lawyers, and the fee is about seventy five dollars for the use of their stamp pads – which is why I hoped not to have to pay it.
The nice young man cut me off. “If you live out of the country, you have to go to the U.S. consulate where you live and have them stamp your form. We are not able to recognize foreign notaries.” My response, “Gee, it’s a good thing I called. If I had followed your instructions, I would have wasted my time and would also be out seventy five bucks. I know that talking to you about this won’t change anything, but maybe NYCERS could send the correct information for those of us who live out of the U.S.” To which he replied, “But most of our customers live in the U.S.” To which I replied, “But you sent me the form in Israel. You could have a separate instruction sheet which you send only to people out of the country.” Our conversation ended there. I didn’t see the point of vocalizing my thought, “You’re trying to create a sophisticated telephone voice recognition system, but you can’t even handle a lousy piece of paper.”
And so, Barbara dutifully went on-line to the website of the U.S. embassy and from there to the site for the consulate in Jerusalem. (You of course remember that the embassy is still in Tel Aviv.) The instructions for notarization services advise you on the top of the page that you don’t need an appointment and then in the middle of the page tells you that you absolutely do need an appointment. Better make one to be sure. This process is actually fairly easy – once you get past figuring out that the information about which days of the week you are able to make an appointment does not jibe with what’s on the click-on chart. Assuming that you remember to print out the page which contains your appointment information – you have to bring that with you – you’re good to go.
That’s where things stood with me and NYCERS – I had my appointment at the consulate the following week – as we were waiting our turn to see the esteemed rabbis at The Rabbinate. Maybe it’s the misery-loves-company syndrome, the realization and acceptance that anytime, anyplace, you have to deal with a bureaucratic organization, you have the serious possibility of being in deep doo-doo. I never wait in line if I don’t have to, and if I can, I will leave – just to make a point. If I have to stay, I’m not going to give the incompetents who are keeping me waiting the satisfaction of allowing my blood pressure to rise very far from its normal 120/80.
It turned out that Barbara and I were not needed as witnesses after all. Here’s what happened, as Tina described it to us. She had brought with her all her documents and all her photographs and all her information. What the esteemed rabbis decided to do was call Tina’s uncle and ask him some questions. Of course, if it’s 10:30 in Tel Aviv, it’s 3:30 in Brooklyn, but that has never stopped a government official hot in pursuit of The Truth. Fortunately, her uncle is a cab driver who is used to getting up early in the morning, and Tina had made him aware that his testimony might be needed. The conversation went like this: a Hebrew-speaking rabbi – he must have been the one in charge – would ask a question which the rabbi who also spoke Russian would ask her uncle: “Do you know your niece?” “Yes.” “Did you know her mother (that would be his sister)?” “Yes.” “Did you know your mother?” “Yes.” On and on. Tina could hear the questions in Russians and the translations of the answers in Hebrew. At one point, Tina was obliged to give her uncle, thousands of miles away, a virtual high-five. The question was, “What holidays do you remember celebrating?” “Pesach, he replied.” When Tina had her first interview several weeks before, she was asked the same question and she gave the same answer.
Dear esteemed rabbi who is asking these questions; There were hundreds of thousands of Jews in America who marched for Soviet Jewry those many years ago, Jews of all ages and from all over the spectrum of Jewish observance. And they all knew that there was no Pesach in Odessa in the 1980’s when Tina was a child. Perhaps a few courageous refuseniks in Moscow and the-then-Leningrad had a seder. But in Odessa? Certainly not in the home in which Tina was raised. But you asked, and she had to say something, anything she could think of. And you asked her uncle who grew up in the last days of the Stalin regime when matzoh would have been as scarce as Jack-o-Lanterns for Halloween in present day Jerusalem. You asked, and he had to say something. In all due respect, do you have a clue? I wonder.
Tina’s uncle is one of those people who, with all their merits and faults, has an uncanny memory for details about his family. When the rabbis finished their interrogation, there was nothing left to say. They turned to Tina and asked her how it was that he could answer in such depth at 3:30 in the morning. Tina told them that he was a taxi driver and he got up at 4:30 anyway. The question remains: what if he hadn’t answered the questions in such depth when the rabbis woke him up in the middle of the night? At any rate, Tina got her certificate that she is deemed to be Jewish and may marry another Jew in Israel.
We left the headquarters of The Rabbinate, Tina heading off to her job, Barbara and I returning to the bus station. We could have prowled around Tel Aviv for a while, but my spirits had been sufficiently dampened by this experience, and I just wanted to go home. We stopped at a little out-of-the-way coffee shop, Café Café (mehadrin min hamehadrin), near the Central Bus Station in Jerusalem for lunch. (Very good food.) We could see several ‘mazal tov’ balloons at a nearby table for two. Sure enough, a little while later, a young religious couple came in. They probably had been engaged for at least an hour; and they probably had known each other for at least a month. I could not help watching the interplay between the two of them. The young man took it upon himself to order lunch for the two of them, but it was obvious that he was not in his element. His very sweet bride-to-be began to make suggestions, so that in the end it was she who decided what they would eat – all without wounding the pride of her husband-to-be. Some folks have people skills, some don’t, and some will never learn.
To wrap up this saga, we have to head off to the U.S. consulate on Nablus Road in Jerusalem, a scene of many heartaches and tribulations – at least, so I am told. Our only previous experiences there had been to renew our passports – a document I would not sell for a sack of gold – and for me to change my address for Social Security when we first made aliyah. And, all things considered, it wasn’t so bad. But the stories persist. The prevailing point of view here is that the U.S. considers its embassy in Tel Aviv to be for the Jews and its consulate in Jerusalem to be for the Arabs. I have as much of a bone-to-pick with the American government as the next guy, but I do try to be fair. I arrived fifteen minutes early for my 9AM appointment, went right through the security – staffed by Israelis – and was seen right away at window five by a woman who was obviously from the Midwest. I explained what I needed, all the while waving my U.S. passport. She sent me to window one where I produced my Capitol One card to pay the thirty dollar fee (not great, but better than seventy five). Back to window five where I was met by a gentleman who felt the need to be super-helpful. He began explaining to me that the form he had just stamped was so that I could begin collecting a pension. I gently corrected him. It was just to change my address; I have actually been collecting that pension since December 1994. I could see the “This does not compute” look coming over his face. “I’m sixty eight years old, If you don’t believe me, look at my passport which you happen to be holding in your hand.” Life is good. I look just old enough to get a seat on a crowded bus most of the time, but not old enough for anyone to believe that I should be collecting a pension or be entitled to senior citizen discounts. May all of you get to experience that wonderful moment.
I was almost done. But before the super-helpful gentleman would take his hand off my stamped form and my passport, I needed to answer one question: What is your favorite flavor of ice cream? My favorite flavor of what???? “I really don’t have any one favorite flavor.” He persisted, “No, you have to name a favorite flavor.” I had to say something, anything. But nowadays there are a million flavors of ice cream. Ben and Jerry’s even has a ‘flavor graveyard’ for their discontinued items. Bovinity Divinity? Cherry Garcia? S’mores? Chunky Monkey? Dublin Mudslide? And that’s just Ben and Jerry’s. What about Haagen-Daz, Carvel, Baskin Robbins, Good Humor, and all the cheap brand we could get at Shoprite? What about the Strauss flavors we get here? Sixty years of licking ice cream cones, and this guy wants me to pick one flavor!!! The moment of decision. The man’s thumb was still on my precious documents. “Chocolate!” I blurted out. The man smiled and whipped out a chart. He had been tracking answers to this question for I don’t know how long. “Good choice,” he said showing me that good ol’ chocolate was the overwhelming favorite of American ex-pats.
I was done, in and out of the consulate in about fifteen minutes; walking over to a bus stop to get the 174 back to Maale Adumim. In life, one must be prepared at times to say something, anything.