Everyday Heroes (Extract)

MARKETPLACE: Shlomo Maital Everyday Heroes Extract from an article in Issue 25, March 30, 2009 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here. "Show me a hero," F. Scott Fitzgerald once wrote, "and I will write you a tragedy." There are many tragedies occurring in Israel, as the global downturn hits the economy with full force. Thousands lose their jobs every month. There were 17,000 to 20,000 new registrants for unemployment in each of the past four months and those numbers are 60 percent higher than in February 2008. But there are also a great many quiet heroes. To the author of "The Great Gatsby," I say, Scott, it's the opposite. Show me a tragedy and I will show you a hero. These downturn heroes are not the kind that fall on a grenade to save comrades. They are ordinary people. They struggle bravely against a fierce economic decline they do not fully understand, caused by a relative handful of overpaid scoundrels who violated our trust by scandalously mismanaging our money. Their heroism consists of waking up in the morning, getting out of bed, going to work if they have a job, searching for one if they don't, supporting their families as best they can, making do with what they have and sharing what they have with those who have less. The media focus on the scoundrels. Almost no one writes about the quiet heroes. To remedy this, here are the stories of four everyday heroes with whom I spoke recently, told in their own words. Housekeeper "I am 47 years old and have been married for 19 years. I was the eleventh of 13 children. When I was 13 my father died. My mother worked very hard to put food on the table - that was pretty much all we could buy - and never complained. I have three children. "When my husband lost his job in 2002, I went to work as a housekeeper. People in my community laughed at me. There were single moms who got big welfare checks and did not have to pay city property taxes because they were on welfare. They sat at home idle. By working hard I earned one-half of what they got by doing nothing, and on top of it I paid full taxes to the city. "This wasn't fair. They said I was stupid. But my mother taught me to work hard and we have taught this to all our children. My husband, too, shares this. He works as a cook, works long hours and gets a fraction of what those who 'manage' his kitchen, and work far less than he does, are paid. But he does not complain. "In 2003 Bibi [Prime Minister-designate Benjamin Netanyahu] became finance minister. He slashed welfare. The people who once laughed at me now had to go out to find work. I thought this was a good thing. I have a good life. I work hard. I'm happy. And when we have less money, we just spend less." Taxi Driver "Some drivers own their own cabs. I don't. I work on what we call "fix." It means you pay 280 shekels (about $70) a day to the owner of the cab. When you add 160 shekels ($40) in gas to that, and maybe a bite of lunch, it means that when I wake up in the morning and start my shift, I know I have to earn more than 640 shekels to bring home even the minimum 200 shekels for my family. "In these hard times, people don't take as many cabs. I once had to work eight or 10 hours. Now I sometimes have to work 15 or even 18 hours. Some cabbies have contracts with companies whom they bill later, instead of being paid right away. They are doing OK. But cabbies who need paying fares, they are in trouble. "Sometimes I have trouble sleeping, I wake up at 4 a.m. and start a shift. Sometimes I take passengers almost for nothing. Today, at 2 a.m. I took a yeshiva boy from the Tel Aviv bars and clubs area to his yeshiva in Bnei Brak. He was wearing ordinary clothes. He said he had very little money. So I took him for the equivalent of bus fare." Secretary "I worked in this job for seven years. Last week I was fired. A third of the people in the office were fired. I worked for years for a very low salary, and did a lot more than my job required. When the office manager was traveling or ill, I did her job too. And I was paid a pittance. "They said I could stay on, but at half-time and half salary. What that means is full-time work at half the salary. But I just can't afford it. My family can't live on half of what I earned before. I will have to find another job. And I will. I am good at what I do. One of the maintenance people who worked part-time for us was fired, and he made only 1,500 shekels ($375) a month! But he has golden hands and was quickly snapped up, at a higher salary. Sometimes things work out for the best." High-Tech Engineer "I'm almost 50 years old, out of work, and who will employ me at my age? I have nearly two dozen patents. I ran R&D for a major company, it was sold, and now I'm unemployed. In 2007 I made $150,000, including a $30,000 bonus. I also had stock options that were worth potentially a quarter of a million dollars, if the company's share price had remained stable. But when the stock market collapsed in 2008, the options became worthless. "I know a lot of people like me, talented engineers, who are now sitting at home. Some may leave the country, though I don't know if their job prospects are any better in America or in Europe. I am not just sitting around. I have some ideas. Maybe I'll build an on-line community of engineers like me, available for contract work. That way, companies can save money and avoid the costs of social benefits (pension, health insurance, etc.). Extract from an article in Issue 25, March 30, 2009 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here.