Saturday, March 29, 2008

Spring & Flowers in Israel

It is that time of the year again.
But these flowers are not in the wilds of the Galilee. These are on our window ledge.
Israel Flowers

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Sunday, March 23, 2008

Decline and fall of the almighty Dollar

A long time ago, on another planet, there was an almost hypothetical country called Israel. Israel was a Jewish country. Naturarlly, people there made their living from the air business, or as the Yiddish writer Shalom Aleichem called it, Luftgescheft
Each year, the economic wizards of the world predicted that this state would inevitably be bankrupt in a year. The finance ministers of this country juggled numbers and books and currency. There was one dollar for buying imported goods, and another one for selling them, and a third, black market one, for spending abroad and buying things you were not supposed to buy. Israeli Milo Minderbinders made money by buying detergent in Germany for 4 cents, shipping it to Israel, and then selling it back to Germany for 2 cents, making a 2 cent profit with the government export subsidy. The exchange rate of the black market dollar, along with the going rate for sex services, was published in the newspapers.
The main financial instrument of this state was the printing press, and the major economic policy was devaluation. My great uncle, who lived in this hypothetical state, went to sleep a millionaire and woke up a pauper. He was not alone. It happened more than once.
Every few months, the finance minister would make some nonsensical pronouncement, approximately like this, "We have been anxiously watching the unrest in South America and Africa,  the decline of the Japanese Yen and the fluctuations of the price of hay in China, which require realignment of national economic policy. Therefore, and in accordance with the above, the government has decided to devalue Israeli currency by 10%." The announcement was always made just before the Sabbath, when the banks had closed.
Eventually, the slide in the value of Israeli currency was so precipitious that announcements like the above became superfluous. Who can keep track of all the changes? The Lira became the Shekel. The Shekel became the New Israeli Shekel, and then it became the Newer Israeli Shekel. Each time, zeros were lopped off the exchange rate to ensure that calculators, computers and supermarket stickers would not be overloaded. At one point, salaries were devalued by twenty percent from the time they were paid until the time you could collect them. Confronted with a price in Shkalim, or Lira or New Israeli Shekels, tourists and new immigrants inevitably asked, "How much is that in real money?"
Inflation was a fact of life. The second summer I lived in Jerusalem, I waited in vain for the price of bananas to go down to 75 agorot again, as they had the year before when bananas were in season. That's how much I knew. Bananas were IL 1.50 in the second summer, and that was as cheap as they would ever get. This 100% rise in prices of just about everything was somehow translated into a 5 percent annual rise in the cost of living index.
To maintain some semblance of economic sanity, every price was tied to the dollar. Salaries, rents, prices of automobiles, prices of apartments and land, all were expressed in dollars. The idea of adopting the dollar as currency was considered seriously. It was called "Dollarizatsia."
Times changed. Today everyone thinks that "Luftgescheft" has to do either with the Luftgescheft Royal Bank software program (there is such a thing) or with the Israel Aircraft Industry, which acquired the name unofficially long ago. Every day we watch the little red arrows on the television screen next to the exchange rates of the US Dollar and the Euro with increasing amazement. The director of the Bank of Israel finally announced a massive program to buy dollars continuously and save the falling dollar from obilivion. 
Tenants must be apologetically told that the rent is now tied to the Shekel, and customers must be told the rate in Shkalim.
It will take some time to get used to this psychic and economic shock. 
Ami Isseroff    

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Threatening to leave the country

Complaining about Israel and threatening to leave the country are favorite local pastimes. People threaten to leave Israel for reasons ranging from wars or election results all the way down to real or imagined insults from shopkeepers or government clerks. Some actually leave, but mainly they stay here and complain. For example:

At the corner of Gordon and Ben-Yehuda streets, a man asks me how to get to Tel Aviv.

"We are in Tel Aviv," I tell him. "Where do you need to go?"

The Central Bus Station, he says. I point to the #4 bus stop and tell him he could also take a sherut, a 10-seat taxi which costs less and stops anywhere you want along the #4 line. He thanks me and heads across the street.

A moment later, he is back, apologizing for his confusion. "I spend all my time in Tel Aviv, but always only passing through," he says.

He has been in Israel since 1951, he says, and would leave in a minute, if he could. His Hebrew bears an accent which I don't recognize. I had taken him for a tourist or recent immigrant.

"Give me a passport that doesn't say 'Israel,' doesn't say 'Jew,' and I'll be gone," he says. "Okay, it could say 'Jew,' but not 'Israel.' But how could I ever get such a passport? It will not happen. But if it could happen, I would leave today."

"I could move to Australia," he continues. "They have interesting animals."

I tell him he can find desert animals here in Israel, too. And many grains of sand.

"Only scorpions and ants," he replies. "And crime and corruption and bribery."

I ask what work he does. He says he is a technician for textile machinery, but it turns out that this is not exactly the case. Israel's textile industry has been in decline for years, and the factory where he worked no longer exists. He now works as a security guard.

We introduce ourselves. Abraham (not his real name) tells me he is 63 years old and has just been to a job interview. In his line of work, employers force him to change jobs every 10 months or so, before he can acquire employment security and rights to benefits. He is making 19.90 shekels an hour (less than $6 at the current exchange of the falling U.S. dollar).

Abraham came to Israel at age 5. He fought in three wars and has three adult children. His mother, age 80, receives 1,120 shekels a month (about $325) in national insurance, Israel's counterpart of Social Security. When she still owned her apartment, she was ineligible for this aid. She sold the apartment, and her geriatric-care expenses ate up the proceeds. Abraham's father died at 87. Abraham had a grandfather who lived to be almost 100 here. He smoked, drank alcohol, ate spicy foods and met his end when an Israeli driver struck him down.

Abraham's family is from Shiraz, in Iran. After coming to Israel, they lived in an immigrant camp. Later the authorities sent them to become farmers. "We had no agricultural experience since the grandfather of my grandfather," Abraham says. In Iran, they owned a textile factory.

Abraham says his dream is to return to Shiraz. He still has family there.

"Look at it on the internet," he says. "You'll see beautiful gardens."

We do not discuss the recent student demonstrations in Shiraz, nor the arrests of Jews there in recent years, nor the blood-libel pogrom of 1910.

Life is good for Jews in Iran, Abraham says. To get along in Iran, he says, a Jew needs to observe three rules. He enumerates:

1) "Your shirt," he says. "You could not go on the street in something like this." I am wearing a short-sleeved black t-shirt imprinted with a big, flamboyant cartoon of a rapper. It was a birthday present from my family. Short sleeves and immodest dress aren't acceptable in Iran, Abraham says.

2) No talking about Zionism in Iran.

3) No talking politics of any kind.

Having said this, Abraham returns to complaining about Israel. He delivers a diatribe against the government, the Prime Minister, the police, the people who give traffic tickets, the city government, and especially the politicians. It does not seem to embarrass him to be expressing threats and dreams which we both know he won't fulfill.

If our conversation were taking place in Iran, Abraham would of course be in serious violation of his rule #3, the warning against talking politics. But we are in Israel, and Abraham shows no fear of proclaiming his political views to a stranger on a Tel Aviv street corner.

---Joseph M. Hochstein, Tel Aviv

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Wednesday, March 12, 2008

An only-in-Israel bus ride past Jerusalem yeshiva

A friend forwarded the following item by Sharon Millendorf of Jerusalem. She writes about an only-in-Israel bus ride. --- J.M.H.

Every morning I take the 35 bus line to work. It's a quick ride and usually takes no more than 12 minutes. The third stop after I get on by the shuk is directly in front of Yeshivat Merkaz HaRav. This morning I found myself a bit anxious, unsure of what I was going to see as we passed by. As I looked around, I saw death notices pasted all over the street and flowers that had been brought lined the entrance to the Yeshiva.

When the bus pulled up to the stop, the driver shut off the engine and stood. With tears in his eyes he told everyone sitting on the bus that one of the boys killed on Thursday night was his nephew. He asked if everyone on the bus would mind if he spoke for a few minutes in memory of his nephew and the other boys that were killed. After seeing head nods all over the bus he began to speak. With a clear and proud voice, he spoke beautifully about his nephew and said that he was a person who was constantly on the lookout for how to help out anyone in need. He was always searching for a way to make things better. He loved learning, and had a passion for working out the intricacies of the Gemara. He was excited to join the army in a few years, and wanted to eventually work in informal education.

As he continued to speak, I noticed that the elderly woman sitting next to me was crying. I looked into my bag, reached for a tissue and passed it to her. She looked at me and told me that she too had lost someone she knew in the attack. Her neighbor's child was another one of the boys killed. As she held my hand tightly, she stood up and asked if she too could say a few words in memory of her neighbor. She spoke of a young man filled with a zest for life. Every friday he would visit her with a few flowers for shabbat and a short dvar torah that he had learned that week in Yeshiva. This past shabbat, she had no flowers.

When I got to work, one of my colleagues who lives in Efrat told me that her son was friends with two of the boys who had been killed. One of those boys was the stepson of a man who used to teach in Brovenders and comes to my shul in Riverdale every Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur to be a chazan for one of the minyanim.

We are all affected by what goes on in Israel . Whether you know someone who was killed or know someone who knows someone or even if you don't know anyone at all, you are affected. The eight boys who were killed will continue to impact us all individually and as a nation. Each one of us has the ability to make a profound impact on our world. This coming Wednesday morning, I will be at Ben Gurion airport at 7 am with Nefesh B'Nefesh welcoming 40 new olim to Israel . We will not deter. We can not give up. We will continue to live our lives and hope and work for change, understanding and peace.

Sharon Millendorf

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'Like this, as if' is a literal translation of Hebrew slang, 'kahzeh ke'ilu.' This Hebrew expression is a literal translation of 'so, like,' as in 'It was so, like, cool.' A weblog translating Israeli life into English.

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