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You can lead a horse to water, but you can't make it drink. Nothing new there, but how about the horse who runs away from the water, and then complains he's thirsty? I'd better introduce myself. I'm that horse. And so are the rest of my mates who upped sticks and relocated to the Holy Land. Economic migrants? Economic idiots, more like.
It was Thursday night, the hour of painting the town red was upon us. Nic and I were buzzing with the thought of an evening on the lash, as we stepped out the front door and waited for our taxi to arrive. My week's work had earned me the princely sum of a hundred quid, whilst Nic had just signed a new contract which would pay him around six hundred pounds a month. And, before you pull out your chequebook and make a donation, we're not doing badly by Israeli standards. In fact, compared with the bulk of the country, we're positively raking it in.
But, for a couple of Northwest London Jewish Princes, we've both been done like the proverbial kipper. A hundred pounds in a week? I used to not get out of bed for less than a grand - City broker at eighteen, it was all looking peachy for five or six years. Whilst I was trading the FTSE, Nic was spending his time getting a Philosophy degree at Sussex. And now we get to combine our knowledge - we go out for a drink, Nic philosophises on where it all went wrong, and I add up the half-shekel pieces we've collected so that I can pay the tab.
It's easy to spot us and our ilk. Faded Dior shirts and threadbare Moschino jeans, last season's Gucci loafers - testament to what we once were, what we've now become, and what we still aspire to be. On the surface we still live like players - we cab it everywhere, drink in the most expensive bars, flash the newest phones. But step inside the house of any western oleh (new immigrant), and the truth will out. It's like being round Old Mother Hubbard's gaff - the cupboards are bare and even the mice have handed in their notice. We've all got fridges, but only so we've got somewhere to go when it gets too hot, because none of us can afford air conditioners.
By the time the weekend swings into view, we're all usually suffering first-degree malnutrition, and for these situations were soup kitchens invented. But our soup kitchens ain't the traditional kind, where you shuffle in, grab your broth, slurp it noisily and head off home again. Oh no - far too easy. Instead, we get invited by well-meaning, but condescending, older olim to have Shabbat dinner at their houses. Which inevitably involves getting dolled up in your (out-of-date, moth-eaten) finery, then sitting through a three-course diatribe of "oh, we know how hard it is to be an oleh", "we were sooo lucky that we had professional qualifications when we came", and so on till dessert. That's if you take up the offer in the first place - I know people who think about it, do the maths, then decide that spending forty shekels on wine for the hosts is actually more expensive than feasting on bread and water at home with the roaches.
And, even though we know we're getting mugged off, we still think we're the ones doing the mugging. All the perks that are flashed at us by the Absorption Ministry when we arrive make us think we've had a right result by moving here - because we can't see the wood for the trees. We're exempt from income tax for the first five years. So? That's because they know it'll be at least a decade before we make anything worth taking the time to tax. We get let off VAT on any new car purchased in the first two years. What? Who's ever met an oleh with a car, let alone a new one? Maybe it would be generous if we didn't pay the VAT on the first loaf of bread we buy, but of course we do. And so it goes on. It's like when I was in the army, thinking I had it good because I got to ride public buses for free - all the while earning less than a hundred pounds a month. (Yes, a month. That's under twenty five quid a week. I was making more than that in pocket money when I wasn't even sixteen.)
And then we gather, on our nights out, sounding like mentally backward expats. "Yeah, it's lucky we got out of London while we still could, before we got too rich". "Oh, how I worry about the ones we left behind, with all their swimming pools and Porsches to take care of". "Poor Sam, having to trek to and from David Lloyd every day, just so he can spend a few hours in the gym". "D'you remember having to eat in Richoux every day? It was hell, pure hell".
Every morning on Palmach Street a scene is played out reminiscent of the daily routine on Kilburn High Road. Gangs of young, hungry migrants gather on street corners waiting, hoping to be picked up for a day's work at slave labour prices. But instead of seeking manual labour on a building site (are you mad? With the state of our knees?), the Jerusalem crew are all after youth work - getting paid a pittance to run around after gap-year kids, teaching them a bit of Zionist history, and encouraging them to climb down the economic ladder the same way that we did at their age.
And, hopefully, the mistakes we made will be repeated by the next generation. Because, of course, they weren't mistakes at all. We came, not for the kesef, but out of a deep-rooted, heartfelt love that we all share for this holiest, most blessed of lands. And we couldn't give a damn what we do or don't earn, what we can or can't afford. Why? Because for nothing we got to own a piece of paradise.
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