Shabbat Goy: Pulse of the nation

To figure out how Israel works, stand in line.

Anthropologists, journalists and other professional busybodies interested in Israel cite all sorts of criteria as indices for gauging the social pulse of the nation: religion, the army, immigration and so on. Pah! If you really want to figure out how Israel works, go stand in line. I have errands to run, so off I go wandering in the noonday sun. First stop is the bank, to deposit a check. Outside, a gentleman simultaneously smokes a cigarette, shouts into his cellphone and argues with a parking attendant about to slap a ticket on his illegally parked car. The gentleman accuses someone – I’m not sure whether it’s the phone or the parking attendant – of not having a “Jewish heart.” I go inside.
A line snakes loosely toward the teller’s window. I take my place at the rear, and wait patiently. It’ll be my turn in a couple of minutes, I think.
Fat chance. Every so often, another person emerges, seemingly from the ether, to claim their place in the queue and ahead of me; the distance between me and the teller lengthens every moment. There is nothing to do except kick my heels.
A man wanders in, surveys the line and taps me on my shoulder. “I’m behind you,” he says. And vanishes. Probably to get a haircut and a coffee.
Eventually, I’m at the head of the line. Almost. The woman in front of me takes her time, chatting to the teller about her necklace. Just as I pluck up enough courage to ask her to move along quietly, she yields, unbidden.
At last! But not yet...
My friend from outside, the one with the cigarette and interesting notions about Jewish solidarity, enters the bank, looks around and interjects himself between me and the teller.
“I was here before,” he tosses out over his shoulder. I search desperately for the woman with the necklace, but she is through the door already.
What can one do? I give way, with bad grace. Mind you, the guy has already plunged into a new argument with the teller; I suspect that my consent is probably worth precisely nought to him...
Next stop is the supermarket, where Mrs. Goy had asked me to to pick up some cheese. As usual, I stand before the refrigerator, confounded by the choice – white or yellow, cream or cottage, 5 percent, 3%, Bulgarit, Haloumi... I pick two kinds at random, hoping for the best.
What was it De Gaulle said again: “How is it possible to govern a country with 300 types of cheese?”’ He had Israel in mind, I’ll wager. I progress to the checkout.
There is one person ahead of me, a hard-faced matron with six or seven items in her basket. She is setting them slowly on the conveyor belt when a man materializes from nowhere, two items in his basket. He eases past me and addresses the hard-faced matron directly: “Can I, I just have...” he gestures to the near-empty basket.
She purses her lips, but lets him through.
He places one item on the conveyor and pauses. The cashier asks if he has a loyalty card. He contemplates the question, and looks about him. He spots what he is searching for behind me, and beckons urgently. A woman pushes past both the hard-faced woman and me. She has a basket. Fully laden with goods. She deposits them on the conveyor belt unceremoniously. Between them, they have about 16 items. It is a 10-item-or-less queue.
The cashier, a child of 15 or so, says nothing. But the hard-faced matron doesn’t stand for this nonsense.
“You said you had only two items,” she snaps. “Yes, but she has the loyalty card,” the man says. Somehow, he manages to speak to her without making eye contact. Or looking in her direction.
The hard-faced woman turns her ire on the cashier. The cashier shrugs. “What do you want from me?” her body language says, although she doesn’t utter a word.
A surprising coda: Hard-faced matron sees that I have just two items and allows me, unbidden, to take my turn before her.
“You don’t have someone coming with your card, do you?” she asks. I smile wanly.
Finally, to the post office to collect a parcel. There’s a crowd at the door, waiting for it to reopen after the lunchtime break. This time, I’m prepared; I elbow my way into the throng. If I stand diffidently and wait my turn, I’ll be here until sundown.
Behind me, a voice declaims loudly about those who think they can jump queues with impunity. I pretend that I don’t understand any Hebrew, but he continues. “This is not how we behave in this country.”
Urgh. I withdraw to the rear of the “queue,” chastened.
Some things, you just can’t argue against.
Inside – sensibly – there is a ticket system, to remove the need for “I’m behind you, I’ll be back in half an hour”-type conversations. I take my number and settle down for another long wait.
My friend from outside has a wait almost as long as mine, judging from his ticket number. He figures this out quickly, too: He looks around, selects a suitably sympathetic – or weak-looking – teller and approaches the counter confidently. He interjects himself between teller and customer, mid-conversation.
“I just want to ask a quick question.” He’s still there five minutes later; his “quick question” apparently concerns sending a registered package abroad. He’s not happy about the charges, and wants everyone to know.
I’m sure I’ll get the hang of this queuing business one day. Maybe.