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.

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