The way things were

Although our aliya was triggered by the euphoria of the miraculous victory in the aforementioned war, it was not a spur-of-the-moment move.

Old radio (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Old radio
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Last week marks the 46th anniversary of my aliya.
While it really seems like only yesterday that my late wife and I, along with three small children, disembarked on the Greek line’s preeminent scow, the Olympia, it is the better part of a lifetime. In fact, I now have great-grandchildren older than those children were upon our arrival in Haifa Port on a brutally hot day, just three months after the Six Day War impelled us to fulfill our manifest destiny.
Although our aliya was triggered by the euphoria of the miraculous victory in the aforementioned war, it was not a spurof- the-moment move. I had spent a year at the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology in 1959-1960, taking a master’s in electronics in the company of my wife of six months. Shortly after our arrival, she gave birth to our eldest son, who is today a practicing rabbi in Ramat Beit Shemesh.
We returned to the US at the end of that year and I began to work in the fledgling computer industry, ultimately moving into marketing. I was always in contact with the Jewish Agency about potential job opportunities. Bear in mind that this was long before Taglit-Birthright, and the organization I was in contact with was called COMOI, or Committee on Manpower Opportunities in Israel. I was always told that there was no computer industry in Israel, and certainly no need for a marketing person in this nonexistent field.
Nevertheless, in January 1967, we decided to take a self-funded pilot trip to check out the situation for ourselves.
In the 10 days of our visit, I had about five employment offers, including Elbit, Tadiran and Motorola. During the visit – remember, the city of Jerusalem was still divided – we stood on Mount Zion, where you could get a partial view of the Old City, and my wife asked: “Nu, when are we coming on aliya?” To which I replied: “When the city is united.” Well, a vow is a vow.
Upon our return to the US, my sales business was better than ever. I started to make some money, and decided we should accumulate a serious sum before making aliya. But in June 1967, the Six Day War happened – and we were on a boat headed for Israel several weeks later. As previously mentioned, aliya from the US in 1967 was pretty much a do-it-yourself affair. To give you an idea of just how clueless the aforementioned COMOI was, when I approached them regarding getting into an absorption center near where I planned to work in Haifa, the woman in charge – who had never been to Israel – suggested a beautiful new absorption center just built in Ashdod, showing me on the map just how close it was to Haifa.
I WON’T bore you with the details of our absorption and numerous moves and job changes, but would like to make some observations on the changes I have witnessed over the past 46 years.
1967, the year of the Six Day War: Return to the Old City of Jerusalem, the Western Wall and all the thrills of rediscovery.
A country without television, cellphones, Route 6, shopping malls or the even the long-discarded Golden Pages. A country 19 years old, a vibrant and exciting teenager, not yet faced with the maturing lessons of the Yom Kippur War, two wars in Lebanon, two Gulf wars, intifadas one and two, bank share scandals and some of the more interesting headlines of the recent past.
There wasn’t even an ATM in the entire country and one spent a great deal of time in the bank shuffling between tellers, until you finally arrived at the one cage where the clerk was allowed to pay out money. From piaster to grush to lira to funt to shekel to new shekel, perhaps the greatest change in the past 30 years is in the way we handle money. Walls in the center of town now spew forth shekels and even foreign currency, and the days of waiting on endless lines in a bank only to wind up in front of the only person in the building authorized to distribute cash money are long (and well) gone.
SOME THINGS, of course, haven’t changed – and it is these that I would like to dwell on right now.
Machismo: The increase in traffic accidents this summer, hikers dying of dehydration, as well as disasters such as the Versailles wedding hall tragedy and the Maccabiah bridge “plonter,” are further manifestations of a syndrome that exists in this land, which can best be expressed in a Yiddish expression: “Gut et helfen,” the Almighty will see us through. It is this attitude that gives us the highest work accident fatality/ working hour of any country in the industrialized world. It also explains why every year, dozens of our youth go lost in the Judean Desert and other hiking areas – and of course, the terror on our highways.
Simply put, safety rules are for the goyim because they are stupid.
We, the light unto the nations, don’t need these silly safety procedures.
The next time you see a building being torn down, pay attention to the attire of the workers. Is anybody wearing a hard hat? Safety shoes? What about the next fellow you see working with a grinding wheel. Will he be wearing safety glasses? Don’t bet on it. How many times have you been sprayed by flying sparks from someone welding on a building above you? Some years ago, my eldest son, who was attending a prestigious yeshiva high school in the North, came home from an outing to Ein Gedi with the tragic news that one of his classmates had drowned in one of the pools. It seems that he hit his head on a rock, and his absence was only noticed when the group returned to the bus. I gathered my four children around me and explained that where I grew up in the US, we also went on class outings – but we used something known as the “buddy system.” Every member of the group had a buddy that he had to keep an eye on and periodic drills were run, wherein the person in charge would shout out “buddies,” and everyone had to raise his buddy’s hand within five seconds or be grounded from further activity that day. My children laughed at me and said that such innocence might go over with effete American kids, but would never work with the macho Sabras.
Gold in Yeroham: Among my files I have a bulky folder titled “Gold in Yeroham,” which is a tribute to the average Israeli’s faith in wonder-working solutions to the most intractable problems. The title comes from a headline in the papers some 20 or 25 years ago, announcing that gold had been discovered in the development town of Yeroham and that all our worries were over. Since that “strike” petered out, there have been legions of stories with the same theme. Remember the fellow who discovered the tobacco substitute made of lettuce? The world was about to beat a path to his door and nicotine cigarettes were to become a relic of the past. Do you remember cottonseed bread? How about the Meridor energy machine? The picture becoming clear? Sit back and think for just a bit, and I’m sure you can assemble your own substantial file. This sort of thinking has made us into a nation in which job hiring decisions are determined by graphology, a pseudo-science laughed at in most Western, industrialized countries.
While some of these quick fixes have worked in the short run (kiting bank stocks comes to mind), we should have learned over the past few years that most things come about through serious – and oftentimes – hard work.
REVIEWING THE past 46 years, certain things have passed into history – some mourned and some unmourned. They include: The asimon: The phone token was once an item whose price and availability was as critical as that of auto fuel, and a quantity of asimonim was even an appropriate wedding or bar mitzva gift – as their value usually increased at a greater rate than the index, the dollar or the best stock on the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange. Hoarding was a national scandal, and soldiers headed for reserve duty would beg, borrow or steal them before leaving. The advent of the telecard and cellphone has condemned these to the dustbin of history.
Home delivery of milk in bottles: At one time, unhomogenized milk was actually delivered to the door by a milkman, in glass bottles – which when opened, revealed a layer of cream about 3 cm. thick at the top of the bottle. When we first arrived we asked the milkman if we could buy a bottle of milk, and he said he would be happy to sell us one on the condition we returned our empty bottle. We explained to him that we were new immigrants from the US and that while the Jewish Agency told us about the need for electrical transformers, no one told us we had to bring a bottle – which in any case could not be the correct size, as the US operated in pints and quarts rather than liters. For several weeks, we followed the ritual of draining a milk bottle of its contents while standing on the doorstep of our apartment, and then returning the empty bottle to the milkman. Finally, I had the idea of reading the obituaries in the paper, going to the deceased’s home and offering to buy his bottle, as this seemed to be the only way of getting started. Actually, after several weeks, the milkman – recognizing that we were buying more milk than all his other clients combined – relented and sold us a bottle, which for a long time was handled as one of our most cherished possessions.
The one-minute 8 a.m. news broadcast: For many years, the 8 a.m.
news bulletin was restricted, for some unknown reasons, to one minute. It made no difference what earth-shattering news was to be reported – only 60 seconds could be spared. At five minutes to 8, a program devoted to driving tips called Green Light was aired, but went off the air many years ago – as it was rumored to have caused more accidents than it prevented.
The cry of “Artik!” at intermission: There was a time that in every movie theater throughout the country, a vendor with exquisite timing could be heard screaming “Artik!” just as the intermission slide appeared on the screen. No only has the mobile ice cream vendor disappeared from the scene, but it is not clear if the Artik brand of ice cream still exists. Another casualty of the times is the single-screen movie theater (okay, cinema) – with films sometimes shown outdoors on the back of apartment buildings.
The Sypholux soda water bottle: For many years, no home that prided itself as having any level of hospitality was without this device, which was also a staple wedding present. Those mavens who pride themselves on knowing fine seltzer still claim that Sypholux made the best seltzer. This beloved product has, alas, also passed on into history.
Hebrew Song Festivals: Back in the day, nobody would think of missing the Hebrew Song Festival/Contest run every Independence Day. Some of the great standards of Israeli music came out of these contests, and no serious performer would even consider not participating.
Sadly, this lovely tradition has gone the way of the unlamented plastic hammer as a way of celebrating Independence Day.
Another long-forgotten feature of the holiday is the military parade.
In fact, the first TV broadcast by the Israel Broadcasting Authority was the televising of the 1968 military parade.
The television “bleacher”: In the early days of television (circa 1979- 1981), the powers that be decided that color television was bad for our society, and invented a system for “bleaching” color TV programs so that they appeared in black and white. This spawned an industry of products that would restore the color to these programs. I am not certain just when this ridiculous practice came to an end.
The white-bordered license plate: Every oleh who bought a car with his “rights” was at one time required to have a white border around the license plate. Just exactly what the purpose of this was is still unclear, but some think it was to discourage soldiers from hitchhiking with dangerous drivers who were most likely terrorists.
Foreign currency restrictions: These restrictions were too numerous and arcane to list, but they did spawn a whole industry of “black marketers” on such famous streets as Lilienblum in Tel Aviv, Ha’atzmaut in Haifa and many others. Hopefully, the characters who manned these streets have found other means of employment.
The “heter yetziya”: During the 20 years that I served in the reserves (an era when draft dodging was almost unheard of), every able-bodied man who wanted to travel abroad had to get a document from the IDF permitting this. Often, when an emergency called for leaving the country at a moment’s notice, this became a serious problem.
Another nuisance eliminated.
The wait for a telephone: Once upon a time, not that long ago, there were no cellphones, no Internet and a single long-distance service provider. Consequently, the wait for a new telephone could be as long as a decade, and the cost of a long-distance call prohibitive. Many an apartment was sold because it came with a telephone – despite having no other redeeming features. All this changed with the advent of the cellphone and competition on long-distance calls. Ah, the wonder of capitalism coming to a “socialist” country.
The demise of the Gashash Hahiver and Ephraim Kishon: There is no doubt that the humor in this country has taken a serious hit with the passing of the Gashash and Kishon. One of the classic Gashash routines involved the old practice of drafting private vehicles into the IDF in times of crisis. I can still remember sitting on a hill in Sinai at the end of the Yom Kippur War, watching some reservists doing to some poor shnook’s drafted vehicle what Gahash had described in their comic routine.
EVERY OLEH likes to think that his/her aliya has made a contribution to improving the quality of life here in Israel. On a professional level, I can point to the accomplishment of bringing the first Hebrew/English word processor to this country (the Wang System 5 in 1979).
On a social level, I believe we introduced fixed seating to the country at large. In October 1972, we made a bar mitzva for our eldest son in a lovely hall in Haifa. We had all of the invitees RSVP, and when they appeared, each was given an assigned seat at a table with people congenial to them. All of our Israeli friends laughed at this symbol of American bourgeoisie affectation. Within six months, there was virtually no wedding or bar mitzva of anyone we knew that had not adopted this method of seating guests.
Forty-six years, two additional children, 22 grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren would seem to indicate that, despite everything, I am here to stay. Nonetheless, I often think of what one of the original pioneers said, “Two thousand years we dreamed of our own state – and it had to happen to me?”