(By Yoel Kranz)
Cartoon by Sarah Kranz
"How are you settling in?" people ask us, winking and nodding. "Settling in" in Israel is apparently not the equivalent of settling in, say, Swampscott or London. In the first jet-lagged heat-seared days, settling in here for a long stay is trial by fire. For water, you must register with the town. To register with the town, you much have a local bank account. To open a local bank account, you must be registered with the town. The landlord demands money, the bank demands documents from the town, the town demands notarized passport photos, the notary demands money and around we go. The bank will eventually accept your deposit but will not permit you to withdraw. The town will eventually allow you some water to brush your teeth but at a usurious rate until you can supply notarized passports to prove that the five unwashed kids that you have brought with you really are yours.
Are things so different elsewhere? Perhaps the trauma of settling in is similar or even worse in many other countries. (Case in point: the girl at the cellular shop refused in principle to open a phone line for us unless we put hundreds of dollars in cash on deposit – “I have been treated much worse in the US when I was there as a tourist,” she said without malice.) But there are moments in between the difficult ones that can only happen in Israel. Here, slowly but surely, the trial gives way to a homecoming.
The smooth-talking auto insurance salesman also wants to know if we qualify for the sabbath-observant discount. At an IKEA that seems to be like all other IKEAs (if quadrupled prices), they sell washing cups for “al netilat yadayim” and the itemized Hebrew receipt could be mistaken for a lost Dead Sea Scroll. The Swedish meatballs and other treif delights at the cafeteria turn out in fact to be entirely kosher. The lady at the town water office, finally accepting our notarized passports, pointedly adds that with five kids we definitely need a minivan and that she has a cousin Moshe who deals in minivans but that he can''t be trusted because one time . . . . There are experiences that are so uniquely Israeli, moments of epiphany that are so intensely personal, that you couldn’t possibly be elsewhere. Even the ATM machine that for 20 minutes steadfastly refuses to hand over any of our own money sweetly wishes us a “Shana Tovah!” when we give up in exasperation.
A week after we arrive, Sarah and I walking along a crowded Ahuza St. in Raanana and Sarah observes, "I don''t know any of these people at all and yet I know them all so well!" And they know us too, sometimes too well. One day the air conditioner repair person, a fierce looking man with an earring, bursts through the door to our house cursing and sweating just as I’m taking off my tefillin. “I’m waiting outside 10 minutes,” he snarls, “why you don’t answer your phone?” Seeing the tefillin, he relaxes. On second thought, he gets in my face again. “You should do what I do," he says, "when I put on the tefillin I have message on my machine that says, Please call back, I''m putting on the tefillin now.”
On our first or second day here, we overheard two clerks in the hardware store wishing each other a happy holiday. I couldn''t immediately place a holiday for that week so I asked them which one they were celebrating. They looked at me as if I had just fallen off the moon. "What, Rosh Hashana, have you never heard of Rosh Hashana?" Of course Rosh Hashana is in the very air here. Every store clerk, every bank teller, random passersby in the street, security guards at school and the electric pumps at the gas station all wish you, Chag sameach, happy holiday and a happy new year (in honor of which there is a 3-for-2 sale on Pepsi inside). At the rental car counter, they give me a boxed bottle of holiday wine along with car keys. On the drive home, the talk radio host is evaluating new year resolutions with a female caller (they settle on stopping to date overly aggressive men).
The best part? On a lark, you can jump into the car and be in Jerusalem 50 minutes later. We decide to do this on Saturday night and make our way down to the Western Wall area just after 11PM. This is the evening of midnight slichot prayers in preparation for Rosh Hashana and the crowd slowly gathers alongside the Wall and in the adjoining plaza. The hasidim, dressed in their shabbat finery, mill about in the corner and passageways untouched by time; commuters like us from elsewhere in the country huddle around wooden tables to compose personal prayers for inserting between the stones; small groups of soldiers adjust the straps of their rifles so the barrels do not interfere with their prayerbooks, the odd late night tourist snaps pictures and the ever-present throngs of teenagers from the US, England and France go about the business of courting each other in oblivion. Trying to select the appropriate version of the liturgy from the booklets heaped on wheeled carts here and there is itself a walk through history. You can choose from the text as historically recited by the Polish Jews, those from Turkey or those from Copenhagen. The Lithuanian Jewish community is represented, the Syrian and the Moroccan too. Impossibly, there are groups of people gathered here tonight that hail from each of these places (and many in between) and as the midnight hour approaches, they one by one begin to chant the prayers in the way of their forefathers, only from a vantage point of which their forefathers only dreamed...
Wishing everyone a wonderfully sweet new year -- L''shana Tova U''metukah. May the coming year bring good tidings for all.