by Miriam Yocheved Russo
As surprising as it may seem, I moved to Beersheba because of a book – the old (published in 1976) “Shelanu: An Israel Journal” by the late Maggie Rennert.
Her book – where she turns all the travails of making an international move into laugh-till-you-cry funny stories – made it seem perfectly possible in the ‘if she can do it, so can I’ mode. For anyone considering the leap across the pond, Shelanu is indispensible. Maggie told the absolute truth: there’s plenty of frustration ahead – but the way she told it, it came out sounding like fun.
Now I’m here, and even though I’m not all that new anymore, I’m enjoying another “aliyah” book just as much. It’s Zahava Englard’s Settling for More: From Jersey to Judea, just published, hot off the press, from Urim Publications.
Like Maggie’s book, “Settling for More” has its hilarious moments. After all, any author who can write an aliyah line like, “You’re never too old to start over and there’s never a bad time to have an anxiety attack” definitely peaks my interest. Clearly, this is a woman who’s been there, done that.
One of the most interesting things about aliyah books in general – and certainly about Zahava’s book – is how we all seem to go through the same traumas. Our experiences – which is to say, the joys and frustrations – are much the same, even though we came from very different places and life situations.
For me, with Maggie’s book, that seemed natural. She and I were much alike – neither of us had ever been to Israel before we came to live here. We were nearly the same age, coming alone. We shared an almost total lack of ‘connections’ in Israel – not to mention that neither of us had any Hebrew. In spite of all of that, we both came with the same absolute knowledge that OF COURSE we’d love it here. This is Israel, for crying out loud. What’s not to like?
Zahava Englard’s situation was different. Zahava is a long-time happily married lady with a husband who shared her passion for living here. They had children – teenagers, which admittedly isn’t always easy – who were coming along. Both had arranged work situations before they arrived, so neither of them was faced with the more common 2:00 am nightmare, ‘How in heck am I going to make a living over there?’ She and her husband both had lots of friends here, having visited many times for extended periods. In fact, they’d even built their own home here in Efrat, so when they arrived, their brand new house was ready, furnished, all the utilities turned on, with even a leased car parked in the driveway.
Needless to say, most of us new immigrants don’t have all those assets when we arrive. Most of us struggle over each and every one of those issues – to greater and lesser degrees. But finding a place to live, furnishing it and finding work are the things that cause the most pre-aliyah anxiety.
That being the case, you’d think my aliyah experience and Zahava’s would be very different, wouldn’t you? Not so. For every one of the stories Zahava tells about her first weeks here, I can match her with an almost identical story of my own – eerily so. Maybe it’s not the big issues — work, a place to live, learning Hebrew – that confound us. Maybe it’s the little things we encounter along the way that stick in the mind as the most memorable.
“Day 19” of her book deals with Israeli supermarkets – a subject about which I’ve written several times – see my blog of August 7, 2009. So it’s understandable that when Zahava begins her tale of those same shopping marts – different stores in different cities, of course – I started to laugh from the very first sentence. She addresses her comments to “friends, family and any psychiatric professionals who may be listening.”
Perfect. The honest truth is, it’s not the government agencies that will do you in first – it’s the supermarkets.
Grocery shopping is such a radically different experience here, it’s frequently a new immigrant’s first big culture shock. Everyone needs to stock up on food right away, so few of us are prepared for supermarket shopping, which amounts to a battle to the death to acquire (not to mention pay for) basic foodstuffs, one that requires so much courage and strength of character that as you exit the supermarket, the inclination (even eight years later) is to do a “Rocky” punch of the sky and shout, “YES!! I did it! I bought groceries!”
Zahava’s best line is, “On the 19th day of my aliyah I broke down and cried in the middle of the Rami Levi supermarket in Talpiot.”
Don’t worry – it’s a hilarious account, one which only someone who’s been here and shopped in one of these culturally challenging places will understand. My inclination is to include every hysterical word she wrote on the subject – it’s all so true, so anguishing and so funny at the same time that it’s just impossible to stop anywhere. But I restrain myself – if you’re even thinking of aliyah, or curious about the things that challenge us former Anglos over here in supermarkets, read her book instead.
Another experience she writes about is almost freakishly similar to one of mine – even though we were in search of very different things. Maybe everyone has a story like this, too.
Zahava’s quest was for “Proof of Residence” in Efrat so she could have their car windows replaced with bullet-proof glass for free, something Efrat residents need. As exquisite as Efrat itself is, they have some nasty neighbors. So, she says, that should be simple, right? What could it take? “Provide a recent utility bill with the current address on the statement as proof of residence, right?”
Wrong. “Maybe in the good old apple pie USA, but here in Efrat-land, it’s a whole other story.”
Her problem wasn’t in getting the correct form itself – it was finding the place to apply for it in the first place. The requirement is that all Efrat residents have bullet proof glass on their cars. But to fulfill that requirement, they have to go to a special local ‘office of security’ in order to obtain a letter that would allow it to be installed. Her problem was she couldn’t find the right office of security.
First she tells about her rational attempts to apply for the elusive letter – the same path any of us who fled America would tread, faced with the same mandate. Utility bills? Forget it. That doesn’t work.
There was only one place on the face of the earth where she could secure the necessary form. Someone gave her directions and she found the right building, but once inside, when she followed the directions precisely, they ended up dumping her outside the building in a nasty alleyway filled with rotting debris from a fruit and vegetable stand.
She backed up, went inside and tried again. This time, someone added, “go downstairs,” but this was equally puzzling. No way was she able to locate any stairs, up, down or otherwise. Again she repeated the process, and once again found herself out in the alleyway, but then “I spotted out of the corner of my eye, just to the right of the produce stand, behind a tall pile of empty cartons, an obscure metal and glass door…. with no hint of any official-looking office inside.”
Like Alice, Zahava goes through the door, and finds – lo! – a staircase. Down. Lots of staircases down, as a matter of fact. She keeps going deeper and deeper into the earth, floor after floor. “It had the ambience of an abandoned musty cellar,” she writes. “It was downright creepy.” She follows a labyrinth, down and around, then down and around some more until she came to a “maze of endless doorways.” Finally, after just about deciding to give up, she found the right office. Bright, cheerful and full of people.
It’s a great suspenseful tale – one that mimics one I had myself. My quest wasn’t nearly as exotic as hers. I was simply trying to find the Beersheba Office of Tourism. It’s a city office, right? Presumably one that attracts a fair share of regular people – even people who don’t work for the city, I’d think. There must be a lot of people who have reasons to seek out the Office of Tourism. How tough could it be?
I had an appointment, and obsessive as I am, I arrived at the main city office building about 40 minutes early, wondering what I’d do with all that extra time. As it turned out, I ended up being 15 minutes late. Why? I couldn’t find it.
My mistake was essentially the same as Zahava’s. I assumed it would be simple and worse yet, I took the directions people gave me literally.
I started by going through security at the main city office building, and once inside the door, asked the resident clerk to direct me to the Tourism office. “Not through here,” he said, “Go around the building.”
Huh. Okay, must be a separate entrance. I went back out and headed “around the building.”
I’ll spare you all the details, but I walked around that enormous rambling administration building three separate times, looking for any kind of door that looked like as though it might offer access. None did. I encountered two men standing smoking outside one door, asked for directions, but they glared at me and made no response at all, just took another puff. Apparently their job descriptions didn’t include giving directions. I asked a couple of other people I encountered making my circuits, and got the standard Israeli answer, a wave, coupled by the word, “Yashar!” – “straight ahead.”
That didn’t help. I went back into the building, through security again, back to the same clerk, and tried again. “Where is it??” Again, I got pretty much the same answer: “Just around the building.”
By the time I was frustrated beyond all belief, on my fourth circuit and within a hair of deciding the better part of valor lies in knowing when to admit defeat. Then one of the security guards – whose job description probably didn’t include giving directions, either, but who retained a shred of humanity – asked what I was looking for. Quite possibly, of course, it could be that my conduct was getting so suspicious some intervention seemed wise.
Anyway, “The Office of Tourism,” I said.
“Come with me,” he said. We walked to the corner of the main building, and he pointed to a totally different building, a smallish two or three-story building that could as easily have been an apartment building as anything else. Worst yet, it was set a half a block away, several hundred yards of open space between, behind a view-blocking mound of sand. There was no signage whatever – nothing to indicate it was an office building let alone a city office building. “See that little building over there? That’s where it is,” he said.
Good grief. I walked over there, and was still befuddled. There were no signs of anything that might indicate “tourism.” So do I just open the door and walk in? I did – I encountered an elevator and some stairs, nothing more. As I stood there weighing my options, a child appeared – a highly unlikely angel, I thought – how could a kid know? But I was in no position to quarrel with the personage sent to help me.
“Do you know where the office of tourism is?” I asked. Without a word, she pointed to the stairs. I went up, and up, and up again — and at last encountered humanity – a busy office with lots of people. Not to mention the Beersheba Office of Tourism.
My first question to the Director of the Beersheba Office of Tourism, a great guy named Gal Greenberg, who’s day by day changing the perception of the city of Beersheba all over the world, was, “How on earth does anyone find this place?”
He shrugged and grinned: “How can you miss it?”
That’s funny. That’s really funny.
Now go read Zahava Englard’s book for some more laughs.
Available at Urim Publications.
The full text of the article is here.