Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Finding our rhythm

Just over six weeks in Israel and we're getting into a regular groove. We have soccer practices and games, piano lessons, parties, play dates, school, homework, and all of the every day activities that accompany regular life. Ann observed the other day that it no longer seems like we're on a trip, because we have all of the same routines that we do back home. We still have cooking, cleaning, shopping, laundry, taking out the garbage, recycling, buying gas and other chores. Gas costs double here, and at the moment, it is easy to figure out the conversion because there are 3.8 litres/gallon and the dollar is just under 3.8 shekels, so the price in shekels/litre is almost equivalent to dollars/gallon (a fact that I found much more exciting than Ann did). My last fill up cost 6.35 shekels/litre so you can do the math. However, we drive very little here, as walking, biking and buses are usually better options.

Although we've settled in and are starting to feel at home here, hardly a day goes by without some episode that is pure Israel. Experiences that could never happen anywhere else. A case in point is the purchasing of our bicycles.

Nestled between Ramat Aviv and Ramat Aviv Gimel is a lovely neighborhood called Neve Avivim, which sports several expansive parks with playgrounds, dozens of apartment buildings, and two small shopping centers, one of which plays host to Mordechai's bike shop. Mordechai is an Orthodox Jew who looks the part. I might describe him as a "Black Hat". He wears the requisite uniform, complete with yarmulka, tzitzit, and full beard and looks like someone you'd more likely expect to see praying at the Western wall than running a bike shop; someone whom at first glance I would associate more with the study of Torah than the adjustment of chains and brakes. His grease stained hands were in stark contrast to his overall facade.

Upon entering the bike shop, I was greeted by Mordechai with a warm smile, and a firm handshake.

Bruchim Habaim! What can I do for you?
Well, we're here for a year and we're interested in bikes.
Where are you here from?
Baltimore, Maryland in the United States.
And you've come to Israel! That's wonderful. What are you doing here?
I'm here on Sabbatical and I'm a visiting professor at Tel Aviv Univer . . .
It's so great that you've come to Israel, finally. But why just a year?
Well, the sabbatical is only a year, and then I have to get back to . . .
Why just a year? Why not two years? Maybe you'll like it and you'll stay. Any chance you think you might stay? Israel is a great place. I am telling you. Israel. There's nothing like it. Stay. You'll see.

I knew I was in trouble. We had not even begun talking about bikes yet, and he's already negotiating with me. Eventually, I identified a couple of bikes that Ann and I liked, and as luck would have it on that particular random day, all of the bikes that we considered were on sale, according to Mordechai. Of course, none of them had any prices posted, but amazingly, he knew all of the prices by heart. I pointed out that I was not just buying two bikes but five, and that surely there was a volume discount. Mordechai assured me that I was getting even better than the volume discount. We haggled a bit over the price, and I then asked if he would buy the bikes back from me in 9 1/2 months when I left Israel. Although he assured me that he would, I was not entirely satisfied, and I suggested that we determine the buy-back price now and then subtract it from the purchase price, in a sense renting us the bikes for our remaining time in Israel. He agreed and even threw in the helmets, bike locks, and baskets. He would not take anything other than cash, and when I asked him about paperwork, he scoffed and said, "I'm here. Where am I going to go? You have a problem, you come back and I'll fix it without charging you." I nervously mumbled something about getting that in writing, and Mordechai looked at me as though I had just landed from Mars, and I quickly dropped it.

We returned the next day with the children and they each picked out a bike. For Tamara, Mordechai suggested that rather than buying a new bike, I take this really nice used one he has at a really good price. It was indeed used, but not really nice, and the price didn't seem so great, but who was I to argue, so I agreed, over Tamara's protestations. The store was very busy, so Mordechai suggested that we come back later in the evening when he would have the bikes ready for us to take. Upon our return several hours later, we ran into Dafna, the mom of a girl in Tamara's class. Dafna had lived in the States and speaks English well. She came to the bike store to get some service on her bike, and when she saw the bike we were buying for Tamara, she took Ann aside and told her that this was her daughter's former bike, and that they had donated it to the store with the request that it be given to a needy family. Meanwhile, I noticed Mordechai glancing uncomfortably at the two women speaking from across the store. Ann told me what Dafna said, and suddenly Mordechai did not seem so pious. Meanwhile, the hour was late, the store closed, and we were asked to return the next morning.

When I arrived back at the bike shop the following day, Mordechai told me that he had bad news. Apparently the bike that he was going to sell Tamara had already been promised as a donation to someone, but to make it up to me, he was offering me a brand new bike in its place at the same price. Really?!? Once again I negotiated a price that included the return of the five bikes, including the helmets and locks, at the end of my Sabbatical, and I paid him in cash with no paperwork. He seemed very eager to please me and get me out of his store. His demeanor could be summarized with one word - "Busted!"
I should point out, though, that I never did ask Mordechai why he tried to sell me a bike that had been donated, and so it is possible that it was an honest mistake.

As I was leaving, I asked Mordechai if he didn't want some guarantee that we would bring back the bikes. He said that for most people he would request 2,000 shekels, but that I had an honest face and he trusts his judgement of character, and that he was not at all worried that I wouldn't bring back the bikes. I suppose he is right.

The bike purchase was an interaction that felt uniquely Israeli. At least that's what I thought, but I did not have a true sense of the Israeli experience until I opened up a bank account here. Up to now, I managed to get by with a US credit card and using ATM machines, but there are too many situations where it is inconvenient to be without a checkbook or an Israeli credit card, so I broke down and took the plunge. After our experiences with Israeli bureaucracy obtaining Ann's visa and getting my city parking permit, I dialed in my expectations, cleared my schedule, collected every possible document I could conceive of, except my American passport, which I assumed I would not need, and headed to the Mizrachi bank on my bike.

As an aside, my previous visit to a Mizrachi bank was somewhat awkward. I needed to exchange a document related to our apartment lease at a Mizrachi bank in Petach Tikvah, about a 15 minute drive East of Tel Aviv. When I arrived at the bank, there was a line of people standing at the entrance door and a guard holing the door to let people in one at a time after screening them. For some reason, he was not letting anyone in right now, so I assumed that there was some maximum number of people they wanted in the bank at any given time. The line was daunting, and I hoped that I would not have to wait in this line of about 15 people just to drop off my document and get a replacement. I walked up to the guard, avoiding the hostile stares of those whose line I hoped to cut and mentally prepared my case. "Excuse me, I'm just here to exchange this document," and I held up my one pager for him to see. He looked at me and sarcastically said, "Well, I'm just here to make a deposit." I was confused. "Oh, I thought you were a guard," I said. He looked at me like I was crazy: "What kind of guard? What are you talking about?" The crowd behind us was now more curious and perhaps entertained than hostile. I asked him why nobody was going into the bank if he's not a guard. Someone behind me replied that they were waiting for the bank to open. I sheepishly moved to the back of the line, and a few minutes later the bank opened, and I took care of my document exchange and got out of there as quickly as I could. Sometimes being a foreigner can make you feel very small.

Anyway, I did not make that mistake again and made sure that the Mizrachi bank in Ramat Aviv was open for business before entering. I asked someone who worked there where I go to open a new account and was directed to a desk in the back of the bank. As I sat down, I inspected the comfort level of my chair, as I expected to spend a considerable percentage of my time that day in it. The bank worker was very friendly, and she started asking me questions. Ten minutes later, we had gotten to know each other pretty well, but she had still not asked me a single question related to open up the account. To get us on track, I told her that I had never had a bank account in Israel, and so I was not familiar with the process. She assured me that it's very simple. She asked for my Israeli identity card and upon receiving it began typing on her computer. She paused from time to time to ask me questions. How old were my kids? What school do they go to? How do they like it here versus in the States? Questions that I suppose are necessary for opening up a bank account. Regardless of my natural impatience when filling out applications at the bank, I'll take extreme friendliness any day over any other kind of interaction. That said, I wondered if I was going to get out of this bank without an invitation to Shabbat dinner.

Once she had assessed the kind of account I wanted based on my banking needs (a judgment I felt I had to leave in her hands, as I was more confused by my options at the bank than I was about cell phone plans when I bought Elana's phone), the woman, whose name is Hen (pronounced with the harsh sounding H of Hanukkah, for which there is no letter in English) began printing out pages upon pages of documents, which she proceeded to review with me. These were the terms of my account. As she was turning the pages and showing me the terms, she whispered to me that nobody really reads these, and that she had never even read them, so I should just ignore them. Practical advice, which I don't imagine you get from the bank when opening an account in the States. The rules are different in Israel. You pay for every single teller transaction. You even pay to deposit cash in an ATM. There's apparently a fee for asking what the fees are and a fee for receiving the answer. Once the account was open, I was afraid to cough in the bank, because somewhere in my documents there was a fee listed for that. I declined an ATM card because the fees are high, and my US card works fine here. I did, however, sign up for a VISA card. Luckily, there is a promotion where you get an Israeli VISA card that is free for the first year, but then the fees are higher in subsequent years. Hen told me that there was no cancellation fee, and since we're leaving in less than a year, it seemed like a pretty good deal. When the time comes, we'll see if I'm really able to cancel the card with no penalties.

Banking is different in other ways as well. For example, when you order checks, you have to come back to the bank a week later to pick them up. They won't send them to your house, they don't notify you when the checks arrive, and they will not tell you on the phone if the checks are there. As I indicated, the service is much more personable. I was comparing stories with my cousin Abby who is visiting Jerusalem right now, and she told me of a recent bank experience. She was cashing a check and asked to get some of the money back in cash. When the teller looked at the amount, she said, "Why so much? Do you really need to carry that much cash around?" I cannot imagine that kind of comment at the PNC bank in Lutherville.

Once you have a bank account in Israel, the next step is to get money in. One way is to wire the funds from the US. Once the bank receives the wire, they call you, and you have to come in to transfer the money into your checking account. Of course, there are fees associated with that, and a commission on the exchange rate. The best way to get money into Israel seems to be via PayPal. I set up an Israeli PayPal account and linked it to my bank in the US and to the Mizrachi bank. Then I transferred funds through Paypal, and PayPal does the currency conversion at the going commercial rate, with no commissions. I was impressed that when I tried to transfer funds, my account was suspended, and the fraud prevention department at PayPal called me to verify my attempt before they would let the transaction through.

All told, I was out of the bank in less than two hours. The only two documents that they needed were my national ID card and, wouldn't you know it, my American passport. Apparently, I had to fill out a form to register as a dual citizen for some tax reason, and they needed a copy of my passport, the only document that I left at home. So, I brought the passport in the next day and everything was fine.

Tonight is Erev Simchat Torah, the Eve of the celebration of the Torah, which my friends in Nashville when I was growing up commonly referred to as "Another one of those made up Avi Rubin holidays". Here in Israel, this is one of the most joyous events of the year. We celebrate that another year has elapsed, and we roll the Torah scrolls back to their starting point and commence the reading of the Torah from "In the beginning." After the holiday, all of the neighborhoods have massive outdoor parties with bands playing music, dancing in the streets, food, etc. I've been told that it's not something to be missed, so we are looking forward to a great time.

Next week, Ann starts her Ulpan, which is an intensive immersion Hebrew program. She will have class downtown for almost 4 hours per day, four days a week for the next five months. The kids get back to school after more than a week off, and classes start at Tel Aviv University. So, our lives will get back on the daily grind track, enhanced by the novelty of being in Israel.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Yom Kippur

Yom Kippur has always been my least favorite holiday. There I said it. I know it sounds heretical, but for me, the deprivation from food and especially water for 26 hours trumps all the meaningful sentiment that is part of the holiest day for the Jewish people. Despite having built up some additional reserves in the last several years, I do not handle fasting very well, and around early afternoon on Yom Kippur, I get very dizzy, cranky and miserable. Growing up, whenever life presented me with challenges, my Dad would say to me, ".קשה להיות יהודי" (it's hard to be Jewish), and for me this rings the most true on Yom Kippur. One of the standard greetings on this holy of holy days is, "Have a meaningful fast." And, while I've caught myself saying that many times, the real meaning is that I can't eat or drink, and I simply dread it.

So why do I do it? I suppose there are several reasons. Fasting on Yom Kippur is part of who I am and part of what I do. I can't imagine not fasting - it has never entered my mind. Not an option. There is something special about standing during services with hundreds of other (hungry) people who are sharing the same experience and chanting familiar songs that Jews all over the world are repeating every year. Songs that were sung by my grandparents and their grandparents, and even by my ancient ancestors; songs that I hear my children sing, and that their children and grandchildren will sing. These tunes have been refined over centuries, a melodic evolution that resulted in sounds that would spiritually lift even the most agnostic of people. The final song of the Yom Kippur service, Avinu Malkenu, echos in my head for hours, and I can't, and don't want to, extract it. It's a part of my heritage that I experienced as a child in my parent's synagogue, in college at Hillel, and at our own synagogue as an adult, and without which I would feel that part of me was missing. For me, it's all about tradition and community.

After having experienced Rosh Hashana in Israel, I knew what to expect on Erev Yom Kippur. The stores that even opened that day closed around 1 pm, and the buses stopped running, and then around 4:00, the roads went completely quiet. Here in Israel cars are not allowed on the streets on Yom Kippur. Instead, nonobservant Israelis take to the streets on their bikes, rollerblades and skateboards. In fact, we biked to Kol Nidre services because we knew we would not be able to drive home, and walking would have meant starting our fast even earlier to account for walking time, a totally unacceptable option. I recall Ann making some comments about biking in a dress or a skirt, but that problem was resolved when she remembered how people dressed for Rosh Hashana in shul. The average congregant wore either slacks or jeans, a polo shirt and flip flops. There were some Israelis who wore shorts and T-shirts, and a group of American college students conspicuous in their dress slacks and ties. The rabbi had prepared us for this by stating the dress code: no ties allowed, and anything else goes. At Kol Nidre, one fellow arrived wearing a white t-shirt, shorts and flip flops, with his rollerblades hanging over his shoulder, presumably his ride home.

After Kol Nidre, we left the shul to a unique spectacle. All of Ramat Aviv was out in the streets. Most were riding bikes, but many were just standing around talking. The streets were so crowded, that we had to ride our bikes for one stretch on the sidewalk, which I felt kind of defeated the purpose of being able to ride our bikes in the street. When we got to the major road, the crowd thinned out a bit, and we were able to ride in the middle of the street, along with hundreds of other people. You would think that on these split highways, people would ride in the same directions that traffic normally flows, but you would be wrong. There was random two-way bike traffic on both sides of the median, so we had to pay close attention as we rode to avoid bumping into oncoming bikers. This was especially stressful as I was the lead bike with my three children behind me and Ann bringing up the rear. While there are no traffic accidents on Yom Kippur, I would bet that the emergency rooms are more crowded on this day than any other because Israelis seem just as reckless on bikes as they do in their cars, and the bikers ranged in age from 2 year olds with training wheels to senior citizens. I shot this 17 second video with my iPhone right outside of the shul:

I woke up on Yom Kippur morning thinking of food and knowing from experience that I would be fine until about noon, when I would start deteriorating steadily. While Ann fed the twins breakfast upstairs, I got ready to leave for morning services. I don't know how Ann is able to prepare the kids' food during Yom Kippur while fasting. I prefer not to see anything edible. Elana fasted last year and was determined to do so again this year. I took great inspiration watching this 11 year old kid with a will of iron go through the day with no food or drink. Elana knew she could quit at any time, but she managed to fast until the very end. (Only later did I learn that she had a 10 shekel bet with her friend Daniel that she would be able to fast the whole time.) During some of my rougher patches, I looked at Elana and said to myself that if she can do it, so can I.

After Tamara and Benny had eaten breakfast, we rode our bikes to shul. It is one thing to know intellectually that the streets are safe for bikes, but it is still quite an experience to turn from our small neighborhood street onto a major road and cross a large intersection by bicycle, with the children following close behind.

The ride home in the early afternoon was uphill and more challenging because it was hotter out, and hunger, thirst and exhaustion were settling in. We considered riding back to the synagogue for the evening Neila service, but I did not want Elana riding a bike in her weakened condition, and was frankly not so confident in mine and Ann's abilities to ride safely either, so we walked. The rabbi announced that the service would end at 6:30, and a woman congregant raised her hand and exclaimed that it was actually 6:26 pm, generating widespread laughter. At 6:18, the Hazan (cantor), who had not paced himself that well, finished the service. An awkward silence ensued. The rabbi stalled by making some announcements, but could not fill the time. Sensing restlessness in the congregation, he sent someone outside to see if he could observe 3 stars, and upon an affirmative response, proceeded to call for the tekiya gedolah, a prolonged sounding of the shofar signifying the end of Yom Kippur. What followed is a blur in my memory, but somehow, approximately 3 minutes later we had made the 25 minute walk home and were sitting at the table eating delicious leftovers from Ann's pre-fast extravaganza. I'm not certain, but there's a pretty good chance that we set some olympic records getting home. I noticed that most of the people walking home from various services were not lingering to socialize in their customary way, but were setting speed records of their own, walking with a purpose, and carrying any small children with them who might have slowed them down.

Yom Kippur is a day of atonement when we seek forgiveness for our wrongdoings during the past year. I wish the Jewish scholars who set the rules had come up with something easier. How about a simple "I'm sorry"? But, they chose fasting, and so another year has gone by, and another fast is done. Until next year, I plan on enjoying every meal, every snack, and every nosh that comes my way. Gmar Chatima Tova to all my friends who observe Yom Kippur. May you have a healthy, happy, peaceful and prosperous year!

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Rosh Hashana

The warnings began on Sunday morning at the university. First, a colleague stopped by to give me a heads up. A couple of hours later, a friend, Benny Pinkas sent me an email tip. By the afternoon, Sharon Geva had weighed in sounding the alarm, and we woke up Monday morning at code red status. Putting off grocery shopping any longer would be at your own peril. Israel was about to shut down for almost four days, and you do not want to be last in line when Jews are stocking up on food.

Stores started closing at midday on Wednesday and would not re-open until late Saturday evening. Even in Tel Aviv, which is likely the most secular place in Israel, you could feel the electricity in the air. As Ann and I combed the grocery store isles on Monday to stock up our bunker, I could not think of a comparable experience in the US. The upcoming holiday hung in the air with a weight that I had never experienced before; anticipation was everywhere. It was part of every observation, every movement for the entire week. For some, Rosh Hashanah means a few days off of work and a couple of extra beach days. For others it is a meaningful religious experience. But in all cases, this week is a big deal. The country celebrates, each person in his own way, and without the commercialism that accompanies major holidays in the US. In the supermarket, it seemed people were shopping to feed an army, and given that this is Israel, in many cases they actually were. In offices that we visited, women were handing out candy bars and wishing people a happy new year.

On Wednesday afternoon, the buses went still, shops closed and the streets were eerily quiet, as ovens across the country lit up, and people prepared for the first of three dinner feasts in a row. Wednesday and Thursday nights were the Rosh Hashanah holiday dinners, and Friday night, of course, Erev Shabbat. We were invited to three different houses. If gastronomy were an Olympic event, Israel would have its share of gold medals, as each meal outdid the next in quantity, variety and quality of food.

On Wednesday night, we went to dinner at Zvi Geva's parent's house. They live just outside Rehovot in a beautiful house with a fantastic garden in back where the table was set up for about 20 people. Zvi's mom called for 7:30 p.m. (or 19:30 as it is known here), but Sharon advised us that start times here are "open to interpretation". In fact, on a couple of occasion we arrived somewhere at the announced time, and people were not ready for us yet. Israel is clearly the origination point for Jewish Standard Time (JST). We left home at 6:30 and hit the kind of bumper to bumper traffic that I remember from my days in New Jersey when I needed to get to New York City during rush hour. Although under normal circumstances there is little in the world that I despise more than being stuck in traffic, on that evening, I felt it was a meaningful experience, as millions of Jews were all heading to Rosh Hashana dinner at the same time, and most of them appeared to be in my lane. It was a shared moment that made the 5 mph drive a bit more tolerable (not really). We arrived about half an hour late, which meant that we were one of the first ones to show up.

The dinner was an absolute feast, and at midnight we rolled over to our car to head home - and once again hit complete gridlock. While my sensibility was telling me how wonderful it was to share the road with so many celebrating Jews returning from their holiday dinner, I would be lying if I said I was thrilled, and we got home well after 1:00 in the morning.

The next morning, we woke up the kids so that we could get to shul in time for services. The congregation is led by an American Rabbi named Jeff Cymet, whose brother coincidentally lives in Owings Mills and belongs to our synagogue there. The Rabbi had perviously reached out to us when we arrived in Israel and invited us to dinner at his house, and we got to know his lovely Australian-born wife and three kids, two of whom are close in age to ours. Benny who had been playing with their children all evening, commented when we left that he had forgotten he wasn't in America that evening, the ultimate compliment. Rosh Hashana services were very familiar. The only difference from the typical conservative service was that the sermon was in Hebrew, and I did my best to whisper a simultaneous translation to Ann, hoping not to get shushed by anyone.

After services, lack of sleep from the previous night took its toll, and we took afternoon naps to recharge our batteries as another major holiday meal awaited us that evening at Rabbi Cymet's house. We managed to force ourselves to show up a little late, and still felt like we arrived early. There were several families in attendance, one of whom actually arrived almost 2 hours late, during the middle of the meal. I think I need to buy a watch that uses JST to be more socially accepted here. I'll just set it back an hour and a half. The meal was completely out of control. There were at least four main meat dishes, a couple of vegetarian dishes, two types of soup, salad, gefilte fish, several side dishes, and many different desserts and fruit at the end. Luckily, my stomach had stretched out the night before, and I was able to consume about twice my previous record. We were 2/3 of the way through our holiday dinners, and I did not think I had the stamina to go all the way. Friday night, we had another feast at Sharon and Zvi's house, with many of Zvi's relatives, and while only two days into the new year, we had eaten about a third of our typical annual consumption by the end of that dinner.

During several of our holiday meals, and in the course of other visits here, politics were often discussed. Israelis have strong political views, and they are not afraid to share. This past week, the Israeli prime minister was in the States meeting with Obama and the Palestinian leader Abbas for peace talks, and it was interesting to observe the reactions of Israelis first-hand. It is hard to generalize the Israeli point of view for several reasons. First, we only came in contact with a limited set of people, and most of them are academics, coming from similar socio-economic and religious/secular backgrounds, and sharing similar world views. Second, in several instances my discussions were in Hebrew, and while conversationally, I get by pretty well, heated political discussions (i.e. political discussions in Israel) represent a challenge to my comprehension. That worked out okay because I noticed that the Israelis in my sample set were much more interested in telling me their political opinions than in hearing mine. Nodding and smiling worked great.

I'll summarize the Israeli points of view that I heard about the peace talks, but keep in mind that I've spoken with a relatively small, statistically insignificant number of people. The predominant opinion that I heard is that Israelis are jaded. They've seen this all before, and they don't expect anything to come of it. They feel that unsuccessful peace talks are worse than no peace talks, and that the worst outcome is a peace treaty that ends up meaningless. Several people expressed that they did not feel Abbas has enough power or control to live up to any kind of treaty anyway, and I heard a number of people state that they thought the talks were a setup to make Israel look bad. One person in a heated discussion expressed the opinion that the only outcome from peace talks is that more Jews will get shot as Arabs try to derail the process. I did meet a couple of people here who were more optimistic and who think that this time it is different, and that real progress will be made. Most people believe that some agreement will be signed, but that it will not amount to anything significant and will not change the situation.

What surprises me is the extent to which I sense polarity in Israel. I knew about the tension among the religious and the secular Jews, and I was aware that left and right were further apart than even in the US, but being here has brought home that the divisions here are much worse than I realized. I cannot tell if it is because I am older and more politically aware, because my Hebrew is getting better, or due to the fact that things really have deteriorated, but I am observing a political situation that is worse than anything I have seen here in the past. The religious right is growing in population and gaining control in the government. Many on the left see this as a threat to the nation and even to its security. One Israeli commented to me, "Who is going to protect our country in 20 years when the religious have full control of the country? They don't serve in the army; they don't pay taxes, and they don't contribute to society in any meaningful way." Another Israeli described to me how the ultra religious avoid army duty by studying Torah until the age of 26, and by then, they have several children, no practical education or skills, and they cannot hold a decent job. Yet another Israeli told me he can't stand Jerusalem anymore because "there are too many Arabs and religious Jews there." And finally, I also heard the opinion that Israel should return all the territories because that would "get rid of all the Arabs there, and they would no longer vote in Israel anymore and would have less representation in parliament". Several Israelis expressed to me that the difficulties that Ann had proving she was Jewish when obtaining her visa, and in fact the very need for her to provide this proof are evidence of the control that the religious right maintains in the ministry of the interior.

I have no doubt that the ultra-religious Jews harbor feelings for the secular Jews and the Arabs that are at best equally antagonistic and likely worse. My observation is that the Arabi-Israeli problem is perhaps no longer the biggest problem in Israel. The Israeli-Israeli and Jew-Jew problems are VERY serious. They are perhaps not as violent, but the long-term threats from this conflict may be just as dangerous to the future of this country. I am shocked at how negative some people are about prospects for inter-faith peace, and how unwilling they are to entertain possible solutions. In Ramat Aviv Gimel, we are living at the epicenter of the brewing conflict, as an international spotlight is shining directly on Ramat Aviv, adjacent to our town. The Chabad, a very religious orthodox sect of Judaism, is moving into the neighborhood in large numbers. I observed them on street corners on Fridays offering me and other passers by to put on tfillin and to say a few prayers. I've discussed this with incensed secular Jews who feel threatened by the Chabad who wait outside the middle school and try to walk with their children and preach religious faith to them. Before leaving Baltimore, I listened to an NPR segment about these tensions in Ramat Aviv, and now I've witnessed them first hand. If you let them, the politics can really get to you, and I've left several of these discussions pretty depressed.

Back to happier things, I'll summarize the holiday experience we had in Israel. They keywords are food, togetherness, more food, exhaustion, blowing of the shofar, political discussions, food, traffic, whole country celebrates, food, and little sleep.

My previous blog entry about obtaining Ann's immigration visa generated the most feedback to date. Some compliments, several personal war stories, and one comment that the Israeli immigration system is a utopian dream compared to the process for foreigners in the US. I have had enough exposure to the US green card system to concur. If adversity is what inspired me, then this posting will disappoint, as our Rosh Hashanah experience in Israel was uplifting and justified the effort of bringing the family to Israel for a year. A truly unique experience.

Tuesday, September 07, 2010


Despite multiple composition courses in college and a career that requires constant writing, there is no way that my meager communication skills can properly convey the experience of obtaining Ann's visa to stay in Israel. Simply put, the English language does not lend itself easily to the kind of graphic description that is necessary to give the reader a feel for what it was like, as language requires words, and words alone cannot express the level of frustration that this experience engendered.

But, I will try.

I recommend not reading this if you are about to go to bed or if you scare easily, as what I'm about to impart might stir even the bravest soul and create a discomfort in your heart that you will not shed lightly.

I got my first taste of the dangers of dealing with the Israeli bureaucracy (בירוקרטיה) when I attended the orientation for new Fulbright Scholars in Washington a few weeks before leaving for Israel. The director of the Israel Fulbright program gave us a stern warning. He said that under no circumstances, and I REPEAT, under no circumstances should you go to the ministry of interior alone. I cannot emphasize that enough, he said. You MUST find the person at your university who is in charge of getting visas for visitors and have them accompany you to the ministry of interior office. Do not DARE attempt to do this alone, he said, and I've never seen anyone more serious in my life.

On our third day in Israel, we dragged the kids to the #27 bus and headed to the Ministry of Interior office (משרד הפנים) on our own. I figured, come on, how bad could it be? I speak Hebrew, and I'm pretty good at talking my way into things and out of situations. Surely it can't be as bad as he said. We were still all jet-lagged and did not think to bring any books or video games for the kids. This would be a quick in and out, and we'd be all set.

Let me back up and explain what we were trying to accomplish. I am a dual citizen of Israel and the US, because I was naturalized as an Israeli when my parents moved to Israel when I was a child. Despite the fact that I was still a child when they returned to the US (and still act like a child very often these days), I am considered an Israeli here. Ann, on the other hand, is a full red blooded American and thus to visit Israel for more than 3 months, she must obtain a visa permitting here to stay here.

So, we get to the Ministry of the Interior, and they are closed for lunch. Furthermore, they don't do visas any more that day. You must return on Sunday or Thursday from 8-12 or on Monday from 2:30 - 5:30, or every other Tuesday from 1:30 - 3:45, and every seventh Wednesday from 10:30 - 10:33 on odd days of the month, except during leap years, and the whole schedule is subject to change without notice. I figured that there was no way we would every be able to return on a day when they were actually giving visas at the right time. But, the next day, we tried again early in the morning. The kids were still waking up when we had been in the waiting room for 20 minutes. Again, we did not think to bring anything for them to do. After about three hours, our number was finally called, and Ann walked up to the counter and stated in English that she was visiting for the year and wanted to extend her 3 month tourist visa that she received upon entering the country. The bureaucrat behind the window at the counter was extremely rude to her and was telling her that she couldn't do it when I interrupted in Hebrew and started making a big deal about being a professor at the university and bringing my family here. I did it Israeli style, raising my voice and gesticulating wildly. This is considered acceptable behavior here, and in fact, is quite necessary in government offices.

The man asked me, "who are you?" in a somewhat threatening tone. I explained who I was and who Ann was, and he asked if Ann was Jewish. I said that she was. He asked me to prove it. Now, if Ann were a guy, I suppose there would be one approach I could take, but given that she is of the fairer gender, I wasn't sure what he meant. So, I said that no woman in America would know how to read Hebrew if she weren't Jewish, so here, test her. See that she can read Hebrew. He said that he need documented proof that she is Jewish. I asked him why it mattered. Couldn't a professor with a non-Jewish wife come to Israel? But anyway, she is Jewish, I said, realizing that I might have over-estimated my skills at talking my way out of situations with that last comment. The bureaucrat (whose name ironically also happens to be Aviel) told me that I needed a certified letter from our rabbi in the States certifying that Ann is Jewish, and that her parents are Jewish and that she is from a Jewish blood line. Otherwise, he said, there is a process they can use to get her a visa that is long and laborious, and can take over two months, and we might not get the visa in time before her 3 months expired, especially with the country about to go into hibernation for a month due to the upcoming high holidays.

To get the letter certified, we were told by the lesser Aviel, we need to go to the Jewish agency on Hashmonai Rd with the letter from the rabbi, a marriage document showing that we had a Jewish wedding, and any other documented proof that we can produce that she is Jewish, and after they certify the letter, come back, and she can get her visa. As we were standing around absorbing this, a nice young woman standing next to me said, "Don't do it." It was like the opposite of a Nike commercial. Don't do what, I asked? Don't go to that Jewish agency. I waited there for hours, and in the end I never got the letter. Here's what you do. I found this woman named Debbie who works at a special agency in Jerusalem that stamps these letters for you, and she will do it with no questions asked. Here's her cell number. I felt like I had just received the secret code to an underground society for breaking through the Israeli bureaucracy. I asked her how much Debbie charges, and she said it was free.

Armed with this secret phone number, I felt less intimidated by the lesser Aviel, who reappeared and told me that there may be a faster way we can do this, but it will cost us a lot of money. He said for 355 shekels each, he can get me the visas for Ann and the kids, but he said it was a lot of money, and we're better off getting the documents he suggested. I quickly calculated that this is about $340 US. I couldn't tell if it was a bribe he was asking for or just some kind of process that is expedited with money, but I jumped on it and said that I would pay it in cash and be done with this. He then asked me if we were moving to Israel permanently, and I felt it was a trick question. I said that we were here for a year, and then we would see. It was the best I could come up with at the time, and at this point, I was certain that I am the worst in the world at thinking on my feet and talking my way out of tricky situations. He came back about 20 minutes later with his boss (we were closing in on 4 hours at the ministry of interior) and said that there was a problem. Since I am an Israeli, my kids are Israeli too. So, they cannot be issued visas. In order to leave Israel, they need to be registered as Israeli citizens, which can be done at some crazy limited hours, and for that we need their original birth certificates and American passports. Furthermore, Ann cannot get a visa extension without proving she is Jewish, which can only be done by a signed, certified letter from the office of the controllers of who is Jewish.

We left the ministry of interior dejected with our tails between our legs, having accomplished absolutely nothing, except for setting various flags in some internal Israeli database that will prevent my children from being able to leave this country without 20 more hours of bureaucracy. The way the ministers behave, it's as though they are on reverse-commission, where their salary increases with every application they deny. The booming voice of the director of the Fulbright Israel program echoed in my head. Do not dare go to the ministry of interior alone. Do not dare go to the ministry of interior alone. Oy, why can't I listen?!?

I called this secret Debbie woman, and although she was not available, the person who answered said that she could help. All I needed to do was get a letter from the Rabbi in the US, and take it to their office in Jerusalem, and they would stamp it. I asked if they had an office in Tel Aviv, and they said that they did, but they did not know the address. I asked what their organization was called, and she said it was the Jewish Agency for Israel. Oy, a special trip to Jerusalem to get a letter certified to prove that Ann is Jewish. I felt like I was living in bizzaro land.

When I got home, I wrote to my Rabbi and asked for the letter, describing in great detail the extent to which it had to state that Ann was Jewish. I also sent an email to the person renting our house with detailed instructions of how to dig through boxes and files in our basement to find original birth certificates for the kids, marriage certificates in Hebrew and English for me and Ann, and to send these to us as quickly as possible. Happily, we received a letter that made Ann sound more Jewish than Abraham and the official documents in the mail a few days later. We have the best renters!

Once I was armed with the documents, I wrote to my host at Tel Aviv University (TAU) asking if he can introduce me to someone that can help with the visa issue. He pointed me to his secretary who told me that all I had to do was bring in our passports, and she would take care of it. I was very happy and excited and told Ann that our troubles were over. We now had פרותקציה! (which is a Hebrew term for someone who has a powerful person backing them) I brought in the passports, and she scanned them and sent them to some other office at TAU. That afternoon, the secretary calls to tell me that the issue of our visas is a bit more complicated, and that I need to speak to this woman Hava at the main university office for visas. Well, I was not thrilled that I had more to do, but at least I had finally reached the person who was going to make all this go away. Now Hava does not work on Tuesdays, and given that this was a Monday afternoon, Hava suggested that I come see her on Wednesday.

On Wednesday, I went to see Hava, who was very nice and friendly. She told me that it took her four years to develop an inside connection at the ministry of interior. All I had to do was take this letter that she was producing for me, and follow these 12 items on a special checklist she had, and Ann would be given an A-4 visa. I said that I had heard that what Ann needed was to extend her tourist visa, and Hava told me that this is where I had gone wrong. Also, Hava said that the kids are Israeli, and we would have to get them registered as citizens and Israeli passports. I asked Hava if she could come with us because after all the Fulbright people had told us not to dare go to the ministry of interior without being accompanied by someone from the university. Hava responded with a lecture about the Fulbright people and their expectations, and that I was a grown up and could go there on my own. She gave me instructions for finding her mole within the department of interior, and she even called her up and set an appointment for us for Sunday morning. It looked like there might be a light at the end of the tunnel after all.

Sunday morning, I woke up with a mixture of dread and excitement. Would the story really end today? Would Ann get her A-4 visa, and would the kids become real Israelis with passports? Ann and I walked Elana and Benny to school. Tamara wasn't feeling that well, so she didn't go to school and we dragged her along to the ministry of interior. We made it through security and headed down the hall to room #13 to meet with our secret bureaucrat. We were greeted with what I'll describe as latent hostility. I felt she was looking for a reason to make us miserable. She quickly found one. As soon as I explained who we were, she went on a tirade about Hava and the university people misunderstanding all of their procedures. She told me that Ann is not eligible for an A-4 visa because I am an Israeli. I did not follow the logic there, nor did I care to. What we needed to do was go to the other room (where Aviel works at the window) and take a number and get an extended tourist visa. Something primal ignited inside me, and I felt I was going to lose it. With forced calmness I said through gritted teeth that we had tried that road, and that I thought the connection with the university might lead to a better path, but that going through that window was not going to get us what we needed. So, she led me to the window and got into a heated discussion with Aviel about us. In the end, the lesser Aviel turned to me and asked why I'm complicating everyone's life. He told me what I needed to do last time and even got his boss involved. Do I have the letter from the rabbi? Yes? Okay, is it certified? No?!? Well, go to the ministry of controlling who is Jewish and get it certified. I said that I heard that this is a terrible, lengthy process, and he said (more like yelled) are you kidding? It's 5 minutes. Walk over there, it's around the corner, and you can get it certified, in 20 minutes you are back here, and your wife gets her 12 month tourist visa. It's easy!

My heart sank. Maybe we should just take a vacation outside of Israel every 2 1/2 months. Cypress can be nice. Maybe Italy? If we leave Israel and come back, then Ann gets a new 3 month visa each time. Of course, we'd have to leave the kids behind because they are not allowed out of the country without Isareli passports, but by the time we've been here 2 1/2 months, they should be able to fend for themselves, no? Okay, so we headed to the ministry of controlling who is Jewish. As Tamara was under the weather, rather than walk, I grabbed a cab. When I told the driver where we were going, he said, "it's right around the corner, why don't you just walk?" I told him that I was paying him, and that he should take me to that address because that's where I want to go, and I don't want to walk! I started to appreciate why Israelis are so impatient and yell all the time. If they have to deal with offices like the ministry of interior on a regular basis, that's justifiable cause for losing one's mind. We got to the address, and there is a sign outside the door. I can't believe my eyes. It is the Jewish Agency for Israel. The same secret society that Debbie from Jerusalem belongs to, and it's a 5 minute walk away. As Elana would say, OMG!!!

We go in, and they are very friendly. Very, very friendly, only there's one problem. The woman who certifies the letter from the synagogue is at a Rosh Hashana preparation party in Jerusalem and won't be back until Tuesday. But, if we leave the letter with them and copies of the letter from the university and copies of our marriage documents, they will stamp it and give it back to us on Tuesday, and we can get the visa after that.

We decided that since we were in the neighborhood, we would return to the ministry of interior and register the kids as Israelis and try to get their passports, at least Tamara's, since she was with us. We made the 5 minute walk back, and got a number and waited in line. It only took about 2 hours, but we eventually got the kids registered. That is, until the woman helping us asked if we had any proof that Ann is Jewish. I said I had a letter from the synagogue. She asked if it was certified. I said that it was in the process of being certified. So, she asks to see it. The problem is, that we left it at the Jewish Agency for Israel. Oh, okay, then I can start the process but I have to leave the kids' religion as "pending examination" because I need to see that the mother is Jewish before they can be considered Jewish. Fine. She said that once we get the certified letter and give it to Aviel in the other office, we should tell him to give her the letter so she can update the database that the kids are Jewish. In the meantime, we registered the kids successfully and applied for Tamara's passport, which would be ready for pickup in 2 days.

Two days later, and Ann and I awake and exchange nervous looks. What adventures will the ministry of interior have for us today? Would the Jewish Agency for Israel have the stamped letter? Would Ann finally get her visa? By this point the kids are walking themselves to school, so Ann and I take a bus downtown to the city hall. My aim is to obtain a parking sticker, which will allow us to park cheaply in designated spots in Tel Aviv and gives a 50% discount in municipal parking lots. The sticker gives you free parking at many beaches as well. The story of my dealings with the city bureaucracy for this sticker rivals the visa story, only on a smaller scale. I'm going to spare you the details because it's really not that interesting, and because recalling the experience might drive me to tears. While we were in the middle of one of the less pleasant stages of my discussions with the city bureaucrats, I received a call from the Jewish Agency saying that we should hurry up and go there to pick up Ann's certified document stating she was Jewish because the ministry of interior closes at noon, in one hour, and it won't open again for five days due to Rosh Hashana. I had come far enough along getting my parking sticker, that I did not want to leave, so Ann went out on her own, grabbed a cab and went to the Jewish Agency. When she arrived there, the woman asked her for her papers. The problem, Ann explained, was that we had left the papers with them. She was bracing for another Israel bureaucracy moment, but the woman found the papers. But, nothing was prepared, and the clock was ticking. Ann explained the urgency, and the Jewish Agency woman went to work, trying to prepare the certified document in time.

At 11:40 I finally got my parking sticker, and I jumped in a cab and called Ann. My call came in as she was walking briskly (in 95 degree weather) from the Jewish Agency back to the ministry of interior, carrying certified proof of her religious identity. I arrived at the ministry offices a few minutes after Ann, who was dutifully filling out the B-2 visa form. How we ended up with a B-2, I have no idea. By now, we had filled out forms for every permutation of letters and numbers in the English and Hebrew alphabets, and Ann had become quite adept at it. The lesser Aviel seemed very pleased with Ann and much friendlier, and she believed it was because he was finally convinced she was Jewish. While Ann filled out forms, I made copies of everything, and set out in search of the woman who had registered the kids as Israeli, so that I could remove the "pending verification" from their Jewish identities. I did not see her, so I got in the line for passport retrieval and 20 minutes later, I had Tamara's Israeli passport in my hand, and Ann had completed the paperwork for her visa. Sadly, a line had formed in front of her, and she was waiting to speak with Aviel again. I went back in search of the woman who could mark my kids as Jewish, and this time I found her. She remembered me, and dutifully pulled out their charts, pecked away at her computer and declared that Israel now officially considered my three children as Jewish. With that proclamation, any doubt I had been harboring about the religion of my children went out the window. Now all that is left to do is to bring Benny and Elana in and to apply for their Israeli passports. This can be done on Mondays and Wednesdays from 2:30 - 5:30 pm.

Aviel accepted all of the paperwork from Ann, issued her visa, affixed it to the passport and started cracking jokes with me. At that moment, I really loved the guy. I reached under the glass divide and offered my hand, which he shook warmly. We were best of friends, after all, we had done battle together and both came out victorious. As we were leaving, I heard the faint sound of Aviel telling the next guy in line that his paperwork was all wrong, that he had to go to the whatever office and get certified this or that because… I glanced back at the poor soul, and while I felt sorry for him, I couldn't help but feel that in approximately one month, when he gets it all straightened out, he will feel as good as I feel at this moment, and he will share a special moment with Aviel. I was the graduating senior looking at the poor, naive incoming freshman with nostalgia; the seasoned war veteran witnessing the fresh new recruit, still wet behind the ears.

Finally, Ann has her B-2 visa, good until September of 2011, with re-entry privileges, and the kids are all registered as Jewish Israelis. This chapter ended today at 1:15 pm, exactly 3 weeks from our arrival in the Jewish homeland. I love this country, and I think it's a great place to visit. But if you are not Israeli, and you want to come for more than 3 months, you will probably have to deal with the ministry of interior. And, I don't envy you one bit!

Wednesday, September 01, 2010

Day 15

Summer vacation ended today, and all across Israel children swarmed the neighborhoods around 7:30 a.m. towards their local schools for their first day. It is a day that our kids anticipated with anxiety and even some dread for three months, especially Elana. She's been a real trooper so far, but it's got to be completely intimidating to go to a new school as a tweenager where none of the kids really speak English, and at an age where the girls tend to be cliquy and often mean, and the boys have cooties. The twins each had a lucky break. We were introduced through the school to a family who moved here from the States last year. The mom is Israeli, but the kids grew up in New York and had to make the same adjustment our kids are making this year. One of the daughters, Maya, is in Tamara's class, and they had a play date yesterday. We were thrilled to see that when we arrived at Tamara's class, Maya was saving her a seat. This made all the difference on Tamara's first day.

Benny is not at all self-conscious. I don't know where he gets his self confidence, even cockiness, and he was not nervous heading to the school. But when we got to his classroom, he observed that all of the kids already knew each other and that none of them spoke any English. He looked at me and said that he didn't know how he was going to play with anyone. I reassured him and found a seat for him in the back at a two-person desk. I stayed with him as the room filled up, and for the first time ever, I saw Benny look uncomfortable. Right before the opening bell, a woman came in with a boy and he sat next to Benny in one of the only remaining seats. The mom tried to introduce her son to Benny, and I interrupted saying that Benny did not speak Hebrew. She lit up and said that they were new here, and that they had just moved here from Argentina. The son spoke Hebrew because they are Israeli and spoke it at home, but he did not know how to read and write (Benny knows how to read and write but can't really speak it - a perfect match). However, the boy also speaks English. He probably studied at an American school in Argentina. So, he and Benny were off to the races, and by the time I left, they were engaged in a deep conversation in a language that is completely foreign to me, about something called pokemon. When we picked the kids up from school, Benny was describing his three best friends to us. Of course the Argentinian was one of them, but was not his best-best friend, of course. Looks like his adjustment didn't take long.

On our way out after we dropped them off, I poked my head into Elana's classroom. She was sitting at a desk by herself, while the other kids were in small clusters yapping away in Hebrew. Unfortunately, we did not encounter any English speaking kids in her class, and her teacher indicated to me that she did not know of any. The teacher made an effort to get Elana to know some other children. She had a couple of the girls stop by our place yesterday and pick up Elana for an event. They also walked her back, but unfortunately, they did not have a common language to communicate. She's very brave, and I think has a good attitude about school. I just think it's going to require some patience before she makes friends and feels comfortable there. After school, Elana said that some of the kids helped her out and were very nice to her, but she had no idea what her homework was supposed to be. She said she felt pretty lost. It will take time. We hired a tutor who used to teach at the school to help the kids 3 days a week for an hour each. I think the tutor will make all the difference.

I observed that most kids who are old enough to walk in Israel have their own cell phone. They are assigned a cellular phone number at birth and given a SIM card for their first birthday. Given that most kids over the age of 10 wander the streets in the barrio (wait, wrong country) alone, it makes sense. In fact, Elana and Tamara walk home alone from the tutor's house already. A couple of days ago, Elana attended a meeting for the incoming 6th grade class and was quick to point out to me that every single one of them had a cell phone, and they knew how to use it. It's not clear they knew how not to use it. I'm not one to get my kids something just because every other kid has it, but we decided to get Elana a cell phone despite the fact that she was the only one without one, and I thought it would be a nice surprise for her after her first day of school, which I expected to be a rough experience for her, but which actually turned out not so bad.

I can think of few experiences in life that I have had that confused me more than my three attempts to acquire this phone. At the cell phone store, I was given a plethora of choices, none of which appeared to be written down anywhere. The conversation was right out of the "Who's on first?" script. This is how many minutes? No, you have to pay for the minutes, but if I pay for the minutes how many do I get? You don't get any minutes. But I thought you said… Look, you pay 100 shekels per month and then you pay 60 cents per minute except for the included minutes. How many minutes are included? None. Why did you say I could get it except for the included minutes? Because that's not the kind of plan that you are signing up for. I don't even know what plan I'm signing up for yet. Well, then why are you giving me such a hard time? It's simple. You pay 149 shekels/month… I thought you said it was 100/month. That's with the other plan. What other plan? The one that you decided to get. But I haven't made any decisions yet. I don't even understand what my options are. And I had this conversation or some variation of it at three different phone places. The clinchers as that in the end, I said I just wanted any plan, I didn't care, just sell me a phone. And, they said they only take Israeli credit cards, which sadly, I do not have. They tried my visa and it didn't work. They won't take cash or checks (not that we have any checks). Just Israeli credit cards, so I walked away empty handed. At the next place, they wanted a 3,000 shekel deposit (which is to be fully refunded in 6 months) if I use a foreign credit card. I told them that I didn't care what it cost me or how many minutes I got or how many deposits I had to leave, I just want a damn cell phone for my daughter. Anyway, Elana now has a phone, and I'm quite a bit poorer. How much poorer, I have no idea.

When not trying to negotiate with Israelis, it's interesting to observe the demographics at the school. Here in Israel, very few children go to private schools. Kids are assigned to their local neighborhood school, and for the most part, that's what they attend. In some instances they appeal to other neighborhoods for various reasons, but that is the exception. So, you get a wide mix of people all studying together. While Ann and I are accustomed to the relatively homogeneous collection of Krieger Schechter parents back home, here, our children are sharing their classrooms with children of clerks, waiters, doctors, lawyers, the rich elite and the struggling lower class. Although the neighborhood is one of the more upscale and affluent ones in the country, there are still plenty of less well to do families as well, and Ann and I were keenly aware of the wide and variable mix of people among the other parents. Some had tattoos and wore ragged clothing, while others looked more dignified and wore cleaner shorts and T-shirts. There was not a single tie to be seen, and I don't remember even seeing a button down shirt. Israel is very casual. One of the great social equalizers in Israel is the army, in which everybody serves regardless of financial, academic or cultural background, and as a result, I think there is less of a sense of class here than in other places. The diversity is not only economic. There were a number of black students too, and they blended right in socially, as far as I could tell. This is a big change from when I was a kid in Israel and did not see anyone of African descent until we moved to the State when I was almost 9 years old.

A couple of evenings ago, I attended a meeting between the 6th grade teacher and the parents of the 6th graders. In Israel, the teacher usually sticks with a class for several years, so the 6th grade teacher taught this group of kids in 5th grade and knows them all well. She introduced me to the room because apparently, Elana is the only new student in the class this year. I said a few words about who I was and about Elana and hoped that one of the parents would tell me later that their child speaks English, but it was not to be. The most interesting thing to me about the meeting was the interaction among the parents and the teacher. Anytime the teacher said something that someone disagreed with (that is to say, anytime she opened her mouth), the parents would start to yell, and then they would yell at each other, and several times it got so crazy that I think I was the only one in the room not yelling. The teacher tried to gain control of the room, but was not always successful. I wondered if this is how she manages the classroom with the parents, how is she going to handle the kids?

Let me give another example that illustrates the way Israelis relate to people. I had an experience that I felt was so typical of the personalities here, that I could almost hear my Mom's voice in the back of my head saying "only in Israel!", an expression that my parents love, and it's also the title of a popular Hebrew song (Rak-beYisrael). So, here's what happened. I took Benny to get a haircut. Only once before has Ann entrusted me with such an important mission, and she gave me several stern warnings as I left the apartment. I got to the kids' haircut place, which is next door to our building, and I was told that they would be right with me. As time went on, more kids came in, and they sat right in the seat and got haircuts. After about 10 minutes, I went up to one of the people working there and stated that we were told they would be right with us, but that other people are walking in and getting served right away. I was told to have patience and they would be right with us. Meanwhile, he asks me where I'm from and I say I just got here from the States. And what are you doing here? I'm a visiting professor at Tel Aviv University. And so on for a while. Then he finished the haircut he was giving and called Benny over. He didn't ask me what I wanted, so I explained that I wanted it short but not too short, kind of like my hair.

He looked at me and said that he wouldn't do that to this poor kid. I think he meant it. Next, he pulls out the clippers and starts shaving away big swaths of hair. So, I asked him if he could please use scissors instead. He gives me a look of complete ridicule and exclaims in a loud, indignant voice: "Now the professor is telling me how to cut hair?" He snorts and proceeds with the clippers to practically shave Benny's head muttering under his breath about how I'm now the big expert on haircuts. Needless to say Ann was none too pleased when I got home and swore to never let me take the kids for haircuts again. The girls immediately vowed not to have their hair cut until we get back to Baltimore.

We've now been here 15 days, and we've come a long way towards getting settled in. I started work on Sunday at the university. The work week is Sunday-Thursday. Friday is usually a short day, and Saturday is the only full day off. I now have an office, a computer and several interesting colleagues to work with. Classes don't start at the university until October, due to the holidays, but many people are around, so there is plenty to do. I'm finding the time difference much harder to deal with than I expected. By late afternoon, around 4 pm, I've already put in almost a full day, and back home it's 9 a.m. and people are starting to work. Around 5 or 6 pm, I start to get a lot of work-related email, just when I'm getting ready to go home. In the evening, I find myself handling email, making conference calls through Skype, and basically having another work day. On Monday, for example, after a day at the office, I had a conference call at 10 pm, one at 10:45, and another spontaneous work-related call at 11:15 pm that lasted until almost midnight. I'm used to going to bed around 10 or 10:30 and waking up early. In fact, I'm still waking up between 5 and 6 a.m. here, and by the evening, I'm completely wiped out, and that's when the most action is going on back home. I'm not as good at juggling this as I thought I would be. I like getting an early start to the day. I joined a gym near our building, and I've been working out there every morning, except on the days that I go running. A friend of mine who lives here, Benny Pinkas, runs an annual 10k race every October, and he convinced me to train for it and run with him, so I've started jogging down to the beach and running along the boardwalk. It's beautiful. After I get home, shower and eat, I'm ready to go to work, and I get there around 9 a.m. It occurred to me that I would be better off shifting my entire schedule so that I go into work in the early afternoon, and then work very late, to coordinate with Eastern time, but I can't help waking up early, and I want to be around the university when the other people are there. Also, in the evening, the kids will have homework they'll need help with, piano practice, and I want to spend time with the family. So, even though I've been at work less than a week here, I'm already feeling exhaustion and pressure. When 4 pm comes around and email starts to flood in, my blood pressure goes up. I'll have to find a better way to deal with this.

One thing I love here is my commute. In Baltimore, I have about a 30 minute drive to work, which can also last over an hour during rush hour. And, it's a relatively unpleasant drive. Here, I have several choices, and I've tried each of them already this week. The first choice is walking, in which case, I have a lovely 20-25 minute walk, mostly through parks and quiet neighborhoods. I can also drive in about 4-5 minutes, depending on the lights. I was given a parking permit, and thee are plenty of spots in the university lot (that might change once classes start), or I can take the bus, which runs every few minutes and takes me about 12 minutes door to door, including a bit of walking on each end. I think this commute is up there as one of my favorite things about Israel.

Finally, I'd like to say a few words about how welcoming the community is here. We've been invited to dinners at peoples houses, to the beach, and just to hang out. I think our social calendar here so far is more active than it typically is back home; we've already received conflicting invitations for dinner this weekend. In the next week, we've got a party Saturday night at someone's house, plans for Shabbat dinner and for the second night of Rosh Hashana, and some prospects for the first night as well. Between my job, the kids' school, the kids' tutoring, piano lessons (more on that another time - we found an amazing piano teacher), Benny's soccer (he is going to start training with the Maccabi Tel Aviv youth soccer program tomorrow and twice a week for a total of 3 hours/week for 10 months!), homework, and piano practicing, there is little time in the day to catch our breaths.

A friend of mine described Israelis as the sabra (cactus) fruit. Hard and prickly on the outside and soft and mushy on the inside. I think it's a prefect description.