Shabbat Goy: Fear of ‘freiering’

There seems hardly a sphere of activity in Israel that can’t be leavened through the judicious application of ‘protektzia,’ or Vitamin P.

By AKIN AYAJI
October 1, 2010 16:42
Vitamin P

Vitamin P Cartoon. (photo credit: Cartoon)

We needed some work done in the flat. As is my habit, I simply ignored it. My experience is that repairs and the like have a remarkably efficient way of sorting themselves out.

But Mrs. Goy – the remarkably efficient resolution referred to above – insisted on drawing me into the fray.

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“I don’t know anyone who actually does this sort of work,” she fretted. “Do you think we know anyone who has had work like this done lately?”

I suggested looking up a couple of technicians in the Yellow Pages, comparing quotes and getting on with things. Mrs. Goy looked at me despairingly.

“You don’t just give work to anyone,” she sighed. “You need to make sure you’re doing business with someone you know.”

I’ve never really understood the idea that whenever possible, services ought to be contracted either from workmen whom one knows or who come with a recommendation from a personal acquaintance. My natural inclination is to keep as much distance as possible; that way, if things don’t go according to plan, it is all the easier to lay the blame upon the incompetent workmen and invoke the time-honored principle that the customer is always right.

But that is me, and this is Israel. Rightly or no, not many workmen here will give their customers the benefit of the doubt; and in any case, there are other considerations that need to be taken into account.

“For one thing, we’ll be sure that he is competent,” Mrs. Goy argued as she leafed through her address book for a suitable intermediary. “And for another, we’ll certainly get a good price when we mention that he was recommended by someone we know....”

I was happy to concede the first point, but felt a bit dubious about the second.

“How can you be so sure?” I said. “There’s no guarantee that we’ll get a fair price, whether we can establish a connection or not....”

This time, Mrs. Goy favored me with the look that she reserves for her most obtuse and argumentative students.* “I said nothing about a fair price,” she said to me slowly. “I said a good price.”

Ah-ha.

If it is possible to discern a single thread that unites Israelis of all ages, social classes, ethnicities and religious persuasions, I’d wager that it is the fervent desire not to be taken advantage of by another; the presumption that man was put on earth solely for the purpose of getting one over one’s fellow man.

In short, the need for eternal vigilance in order to avoid being taken for a freier.

I think it reasonable to presume that anyone reading this is familiar with the concept of the freier; in any case, time and space prevent me from doing justice to the term, given that nothing less than a treatise of book length would suffice.

So I’ll limit myself to the observation that in a world where one presumes that everyone is out to screw everyone else, the only effective prophylactic is the capacity to establish a sufficient degree of kinship so as to minimize the expected harm; a protective barrier commonly known as protektzia, or Vitamin P.

In looking for someone to recommend a suitably competent technician to do the work in our flat, Mrs.Goy, I understood, was looking to establish her Vitamin P – a relationship with the workman before he even turned up. That way, one might hope that he would do a reasonably competent job, resist the temptation to claim that it took half a day, and still charge only a moderately excessive fee in return for his services.

ONE ASSUMES that one will be done over somehow; the task is to try and minimize the damage. This principle extends beyond consumer relations, of course; job-hunting, dealings with government departments...there seems hardly a sphere of activity that can’t be leavened through the judicious application of Vitamin P.

When I first moved to Israel, I sneered at the concept of protektzia (“Do I really need to tell the grocer that I’m your son-in-law?”), until one fateful day when I went to buy a pair of running shoes in a small shop somewhere in Tel Aviv (I won’t be any more specific, so as to protect the guilty; in any case, I may need his services again).

I was on a pretty tight budget; I saw what I wanted, but the price quoted was NIS 40 more than I intended to spend. I shook my head regretfully and returned the shoes to the display.

The salesman looked out of the window. It was one of those hot, humid summer days when passing footfall and business were inevitably slow.

“OK,” he said, eying me up conspiratorially. “For you, I’ll take NIS 60 off. But don’t tell anyone....”

Just like that. The thing is, I couldn’t even take the credit for my hardnosed bargaining skills; rather, I obsessed for weeks afterwards about how much of a profit he had still made from me, NIS 60 “discount” or not. I presumed that I’d been had as a freier; all things considered, I find this level of instinctual suspicion rather depressing.

But that’s life in Israel, it seems.


An encouraging postscript, however: Before starting to write for this newspaper, I posted a message on an online forum asking for advice about whom it would be best to send unsolicited work to. Someone kindly replied with the relevant editorial details, but cautioned against optimism. “I hear that it’s all Vitamin P with the Post,” she wrote back.

Looks like she was wrong. Either that, or someone has been looking after me behind my back.

*I should say that I imagine this to be the case, since I’ve never seen Mrs Goy teach. Perhaps it’s a look that she reserves for me at my most obtuse and argumentative.


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