Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Driving Lessons

Israeli roads – where people reverse into parked cars and then shout at the owners for stupidity, where to take hold of the wheel is to take your life in your hands and where a court recently fined someone 3,000 shekels for slapping a taxi driver who refused to put the meter on. Venturing onto the road in Israel is no easy mission, especially if you are used to driving on the other side of the road (apart from British historical isolationism and ‘better than thouness,’ does anyone know why we still do that?) Yet apparently it’s a rite of passage no Oleh should miss out on, so after the initial bureaucracy had been sorted, what better next step than to get that much sought after Israeli driver’s license?

For new drivers, no test can be arranged until they have taken a minimum of 28 lessons and a theory test. But if you have a foreign license already, it’s not so bad. You need to go to a place to fill out a form, have a ‘physical’ (which involves having your blood pressure taken) an eye test and then you can have a couple of lessons and take the test. It dawned on me that there are two ways one can fail the eye test; either by actually being blind, or not knowing how to say blue, red and white in Hebrew! (I won’t actually reveal the correct order so as not to allow blind people to pass their test – we have enough people here who don’t look where they are going…) but basically its pretty easy.

Driving itself proves slightly more of a problem. It dawned on me that not knowing the words for ‘indicate’ ‘hand break’ and ‘parallel parking’ may complicate my chances of passing (the first warning signs were when I reversed parked instead of doing parallel parking) Luckily the words for ‘u turn’ and ‘gas’ are the same. I then realized that things that will pass you in England (not crossing your hands on the steering wheel, putting up the handbreak up at traffic lights) will fail you in Israel…yet the most surprising revelation was when my instructor told me that hooting is ONLY allowed in Israel to prevent an immediate accident…someone should really tell that to the number two car in the queue at traffic lights.

In retrospect, perhaps the best preparation for a driving test would not have been a torrential downpour for two days prior to the test; nor the pre test lesson being cut short because the post office where you pay was closed due to electrical problems. Yet once the examiner came into the car, things went smoothly. Munching on a croissant, he casually asks me if I mind him eating and, seeing my Kippah, hastily puts his hand on his head and says a bracha over the food. I was just happy he didn’t start trotting out Tefillat HaDerech.

People who know me know how much I like speaking Hebrew to Israelis (even when its not necessary,) but I have to admit to having difficulty concentrating on driving whilst listening to the examiner telling me his dreams of working in the Israeli Embassy in Romania, cos his parents were Romanian 'and ‘the Carpathian mountains are supposed to be very beautiful there.’ Yet bearing in mind it was his 15th test that day, I figured he was probably bored and it would help my chances of passing if he was concentrating on the conversation rather than my driving skills.

As we near the end of the test, he asked me where my wife was. And when I replied that I don’t have one he gets very animated – that I must find a kallah, and the best sort of girls for me are ones from Bnei Brak, because they’re proper and serious… And whilst I am still unconvinced by his shidduch suggestions, I was happy to humour him for the remaining minutes of the test.

As I have said many times already over the last 3 weeks, ‘only in Israel…’

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Aliya - Oleh or Immigrant?

I’m not sure if irony is the word, but it was strange that my first day in Israel was marked in the Jerusalem Post by having an article called ‘an open letter in response to why i am making Aliya - the harsh truth about living in Israel' and beginning ‘Dear Calev Bender…’

I was kind of hoping more for a ‘welcome to Israel, Calev, so happy to have you’ but I settled for seeing my name in print. The article I wrote on my reasons for making Aliya touched a bit of a nerve amongst Olim who discussed the pros and cons of moving to Israel over the next few days in the pages of the Jerusalem Post and the talkback section of the online edition.

I can’t claim to have been recognised in the street yet, but its still early days…

I arrived Sunday night in Israel where the rain on the tarmac at Ben Gurion made my decision over whether to kiss the ground for me. At the airport I received my Sal Klita, (apparently it’s the only time you see 200 shekel notes) my Teudat Oleh, a blue booklet you need to get other things later (it’s a bit like those old Monkey Island games – you need the booklet to get another booklet to get the bank account, drivers license etc…) and was on my way relatively quickly and painlessly. The first week was spent getting an identity, bank account, health insurance, mobile phone (only one for now) and of course a couple of visits to Ikea (some things are the same whatever country you are in.) The second has mainly been spent on the beach. I’d also like to thank the unsuspecting people who have allowed me to piggy back on their wireless internet from my flat (although I’m pretty confident and hopeful they don’t read this blog.)

And although so far it’s been great, and I still feel like I am on holiday, there is no question that it’s not the easiest place to live. Clearly I completely disagree with her and don’t consider that spending two paragraphs on Israel’s problems and bigging up London as 'making Aliya with rose tinted glasses,’ but I think what my Jerusalem Post nemesis Noga Martin was trying to get across was that things are tough here and that in our ideological fervor, we shouldn’t ignore the difficulties when talking about Aliya. And whilst I am yet to find a western liberal democracy in which issues of crime, racism, and domestic violence don’t occur, yet to live in a country that is perfect and doesn’t have stuff that gripes you (any foreigner who has tried to open a bank account in England will understand…) I think the point needs to be kept in mind.

But having said all of this, it does the country an injustice to focus on the small things and ignore the big picture - a sovereign Jewish polity for the first time in 2,000 years in which the Jewish people re-entered history as owners of their own destiny…and we have an opportunity to be a part of this ongoing struggle in whatever small way we may choose. In addition to the problems, Israel is about girl scouts offering people doughnuts in the mall on Chanukah, people wishing you Mazal Tov and good luck when you tell them you made Aliya, an elderly woman at the bus stop offering help and ending up giving me her number and address in case ‘I needed anything’ (now I just need to work on the younger ones…)

And it does seem a bit of a cliché to say it, but I believe that we are all one family here. And yes, that does include the arrogant guy in the vest top or the obnoxious women smoking in the non smoking area and the loud kid that pushes in the cue just as much as it includes the strangers who go out of their way to help us. But I believe those type of people really bother us because we care and expect more…because we believe that Israel can be much more than another country, more than just another nation state like Albania.

That for me is why this place is special, because enough people care about what happens here – and whether that causes them to love this place or hate parts of it is less important to me than the fact they care at all. What we all share is a passion, a passion for how we want the country to be, and that inevitably leads to potential disappointment if the reality doesn’t match the dream.

I had an interesting conversation with someone who made a successful Aliya from Canada around 25 years ago. He advised me that people who move to Israel should see themselves more as immigrants than Olim and that to succeed here, you need to be tough. ‘You know that Puerto Rican guy in West Side Story with the knife?’ he said, ‘That’s who you need to be, that’s how you need to fight here.’ And whilst I have difficulty taking seriously cinematic gang members who seem to break into song and dance at every street intersection, I think the distinction between the two is the key to integration. Olim come to a country expecting to be welcomed, given good jobs and taken care of financially. Immigrants arrive knowing they need to work hard, that it’s an almost constant uphill struggle. To succeed here and to be ready for the bureaucratic and social deluge, you need to be more of the latter and less of the former. And the real question is whether one can do all this whilst still maintaining a culture of politeness and manners that we are rightly proud of in England.

I’ll keep you posted on the answer…wishing everyone a happy new (Gregorian) year of caring more about the big picture…