Aliyah Diary Post #2

May 04

Chance encounters and profiling

Walking to synagogue for morning prayers, I approached a spot where a scrubby-looking man, perhaps in his 50s, very unkempt gray beard, dressed in what appeared to be very old Israeli army khakis, was hunched over a dirt area, busily doing something with his back mostly turned to me.  I initially thought he was scavenging for glass bottles or lost coins in the low bushes behind a bus bench.   But when I passed him, I realized that he was cleaning up old newspapers and other litter.  I took a few more steps, stopped, turned around, and said to himתודה לך לעשות את זה  -- “Thank you for doing that.” 

He responded in American English: “Thanks for saying that; it encourages me to do it when people appreciate it.   Better that we have a ‘Jerusalem of Gold’ (a famous song/phrase) to look at than a ‘Jerusalem of trash!’”  I asked him where he was from, and he said, “Originally, Indiana, but I’ve been here a long time.”  He asked me where I was from, and I said I was a new immigrant from California.  He was genuinely pleased at this, swung his arm in a kind of triumphant gesture and exclaimed, “Great, we need new blood!”  Then, he turned reflective and said, “You’ll meet the best people here, and the worst.  I’ve said that to many Israelis, and they’ve never disagreed with me.”   We wished each other good luck, and I continued on my way.   Later, I was sorry that I hadn’t exchanged phone  numbers; he seemed like a very nice guy and must have many interesting stories to tell.  I also shouldn’t have judged him by his appearance. 

Speaking of which…

A few summers ago, an obviously Arab man in what appeared to be his late 20s hurriedly approached me on the street.  In broken Hebrew, he asked, “Where is the President’s house?” (it’s in the neighborhood).   I hesitated for a moment, and then gave him directions.  He walked off at a fast clip.    Then I wondered whether it had been a mistake to tell him; what were his intentions?  Should I have sent him in the opposite direction?  Should I go to the guard at the President’s house and alert him?  (I didn’t).  I wondered whether I would hear an explosion in the next few minutes, or read of an incident in the next day’s newspaper.  But that didn’t happen, either.  (I’ve since learned that there are many public events at the President’s House, although I have no idea whether that was why he wanted to go there).  

Fast forward to yesterday.   The front entrance to the apartment building where I am staying has a combination lock/buzzer system.  As I was about to exit, I saw, just outside the glass door, an Arab woman (with headscarf) who looked to be in her 20s appearing to stare with consternation at the combination lock.  For a moment, I thought; if I continue on to the front door and open it to leave, she will be able to enter.  Should I?  I decided to do so.  Just before I reached the door, I heard the electronic lock click; someone in an apartment had unlocked it remotely.  I felt relieved; she was expected. 

Each day, I walk past plain-clothed soldiers holding rifles and store security guards with pistols who size me up at a glance (typical middle-aged American in shorts and baseball cap) and then ignore me.  They are engaging in “profiling,” just as I did with these two people.  To an American (especially an American lawyer), this is wrong, wrong, wrong!  And yet, Jerusalemites have had to live with bus and other bombings, and random other attacks (such as by Arab drivers of construction equipment).  I am glad for the security, and were it not for the profiling, I would have to be searched many times each day.  Yet, I can imagine (just a bit) what it might be like to be Arab and always a suspect, often stopped and perhaps searched.   It’s a reminder of how complicated life is here, and also that we should not automatically judge other societies, who live under different circumstances, by our standards.    

International City

One of the most wonderful things about Jerusalem is that it is truly an international city.  This being the capital city of the Jewish world, there are Jews from everywhere, both living and visiting.  One hears English, Russian, and Spanish on the street (and languages I can’t identify).  I passed a “lost dog” sign on a streetpost this morning in English and French (but not Hebrew).   There are also innumerable Christian and other tourists and many other tour groups.  And, there are also periodic street “walks” in support or protest of this or that cause.   Last Fall, I rented a car near my apartment and attempted to return there for my luggage.  I didn’t know that a street march supporting some cause or other had begun in the meantime, and I was lucky to make it back to my apt – normally a few minutes away – in 30 minutes after many frustrating turns.  Yesterday, in Ulpan (Hebrew class), I heard stories of bus trips that morning having taken 2-3 times the normal period due to a “Walk against Breast Cancer.”   Walking home, I passed the marchers, and they had totally clogged the main streets.  Drivers were apoplectic, and many of them leaned on their horns.   When finally able to move past a policeman/woman, many rolled down their windows and shrieked in protest.   Jerusalem is never a dull city!  (I didn't think to do so at the time, but since I carry my Iphone with me and it's easy to take short videos, I'll try to post them when I encounter interesting situations). 

Bankers' Hours

Sunday, the first day of the week and my fifth day in the country, I finally felt awake enough to begin required formalities.  First step: open a bank account (to receive modest government subsidies for new immigrants and pay for mandatory health insurance, etc.).   Which bank?  Walking with a friend savvy in Israel finance, we passed a small bank that specialized in real estate.  He recommended it to me; their bureaucracy is somewhat less than usual, he says, and I might want to buy a place to live some time.  But, they only have one office and I will be living in various places around the city for the foreseeable future.  So, I decide instead on “BIG BANK A,” with many branches.   There’s one near my current apartment. 

A sheave of official papers in my backpack, I readied myself to do battle with the notorious Israeli bureaucracy.  Silently rehearsing  the Hebrew for “Hello. I’m a new immigrant and would like to open an account” I pushed firmly on the glass front door and – it wouldn’t open.  Huh?  I peered through the glass; all was dark inside.  I looked at the “hours” sign:  Sunday, Wednesday, Thursday 8:30-1:15.  Monday and Thursday 8:30-1 and 4:00-6:30.  Friday closed.   It was 2:30 in the afternoon.   Perhaps another sign should have said “Now closed for our convenience.”   I wrote down the hours. 

Monday:   Round 2.  I knew that today was an “open in the afternoon” bank day, but I didn’t check the precise hours.   Ulpan ended a few minutes late, about 12:35, and I tarried to speak briefly with some classmates.  Leaving, and although I was on foot, I decided to detour to the BIG BANK A branch at Zion Square (in the city center), since I knew where it was and it was closer to where I wasthan the branch I tried yesterday.  I walked up the stairs, pulled on the door.  It didn’t open.  After a few moments, the door did open and people exited, but a guard relocked the door after each one.   I looked at the sign.  Closed at 1:00.  It was 1:10; I missed it by ten minutes!  I looked across the square and saw a branch of BIG BANK B, which, coincidentally, Barbara (my wife) mentioned to me this morning.  It’s now 1:15.  I walk across the square and there is also a guard letting people out.  I check the sign; closed at 1:15! 

Really annoyed, there is nothing else to do but head home, eat lunch, and wait for the branch I tried yesterday to reopen at 4:00.    At home, I decide to see if there are any internet comments from new immigrants recommending BIG BANK A vs. BIG BANK B.  What I find is a glowing recommendation for the small real estate bank that my friend had recommended.   I decide to go with it, even if it is somewhat inconvenient; I plan to do most everything by ATM anyway.    I check the bank’s website.  The branch opens today at 4.  Okay.  I walk the 15 minutes there, arrive about 4:30,  and pull on the door.  Locked!  I check the hours… it closed at 4:00!  But…the website?!!!!  

I am now totally frustrated; I have tried THREE banks and not even made it inside any of them!   As I trudge home, I decide to do the only “sure thing.”  The same internet comment that recommended the small bank also said that one can open an account at a post office bank, which offers limited banking services for nominal fees.   That’s probably all I need for now, and it should be convenient.  I’ll pass one on the way home.  I arrive and pull on the door handle.  It rattles but doesn’t open.  What????  I stand there staring at the sign, which clearly says that the bank should be open right now.   I’m at a loss. 

Suddenly, the door opens INWARD and a customer walks out.  Chagrined, I push on the door and enter.  Hooray!  I am actually in a bank!   Too tired and impatient to try to converse in Hebrew, I ask the counter clerk whether she speaks English.   “A little,” she says.  I explain that I’m a new immigrant and want to open an account.   She seems somewhat surprised, but agrees.  Do I have a copy of my passport?  “No, only the original.”  She turns to make a copy of it on a copy machine, but then someone speaks to her in Hebrew.  She turns back to me.  “Sorry, we don’t have the form.  You should try going to a Post Office.”  Huh? I think: Isn’t that precisely where I am?  A post office branch that also offers bank services?   How could they not have the form necessary to open a bank account, I wonder, incredulously?   Defeated, I don’t argue.   I’ve wasted hours today trying to open an account and didn’t get anywhere.  But I have to do this, so I’ll regroup and try again tomorrow.   And this is just STEP ONE of the process!   Welcome to Israel!

P.S.  What a difference a day makes!  The next day, I went to the government immigration office (no appointment) to obtain my formal citizenship papers and was in-and-out within 45 minutes!   Took these papers to the office of the national health insurance fund I had chosen, and they signed me right up.  Then, to the main post office-bank downtown and opened an account (that did take a while, but it wasn’t too painful).  And finally to the cell phone store to convert my expensive tourist pay-by-the-minute plan to a much cheaper citizens-only monthly flat fee rate.    That’s more like it!

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  • Aliyah Diary Post #2



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A bird that you set free may be caught again, but a word that escapes your lips will not return.
Jewish Proverb