January 7, 2007

Just Another Day in Israel

What seems to be just another run-of-the-mill day here can often morph into an entity of its own.

Do car pool, grab a coffee and run off to the opthamologist for a regular check up. Sound normal? Amir and I present our Macabi health cards to the receptionist at the eye doctor. She swipes my card, asks for it again and then tells me that I am not in the Macabi system.

“How can that be?” I blurt out in my broken Hebrew. “My children are in the system, my husband is. We are a family.”

She smiles. “I am glad you are a family. But you are not in the system. Go to the Macabi office right away. Then call us back to make another appointment.” I am dismissed. Looks like my eyes are going to have to wait another decade before I get around to caring for them.

I leave Amir, half blind with wildly dilated eyeballs, and drive off to the main Macabi office in Raanana. I dutifully get my number and wait a good half hour only to be told that it is not Macabi’s fault. I need to go to Bituach Leumi, the national health insurance office.

The woman at Macabi who is busily punching in my teudah zeut number then pronounces that I have no status. In other words, I am, according to the Israeli government files, a nobody. I have been living here for a year and a half and am not recognized as anyone. Yes, I officially have four kids and a husband - they are on file, but me? I am erased. I know that I must get back into the system quickly because, if G-d forbid, something were to happen to me, I could be refused treatment.

I scramble from the office and run smack into Amir who is leisurely sitting outside cradling a cafe hafuch. His eyes are still dilated. Having just been told that he officially needs glasses, he’s decided to play this for all it is worth.

He squints up at me, questioningly. “Who is that? I can’t see.” I grab his arm in mine as if we are a 90-year-old couple and hurriedly lead him back to the car, chattering on about my latest challenge. Problem is, us seniors can’t remember where the Bituach Leumi office is. Just like Amir’s eyes, my memory is a blur, having conveniently blocked out my previous visit to Bituach Leumi.

We first decide to check whether Bituach Leumi is even open on a Tuesday ay 11:30 am. Israeli offices never keep the normal 9-5 hours daily; that would be too boring. Instead, the hours are scattered across the week like sea shells swept ashore.

Amir actually has the phone number and we dial. Of course we reach a voice mail with a detailed menu. But first we have to select a language; we can choose between Hebrew, Arabic and Russian. What, no English? No representation of the most popularly spoken language in the world? (Sounds like the impossible phone system at the TV tax office - but that is another story.) Given my authority of the Hebrew language, I feel I may do better selecting option 2 and talking perestroika.

Amir forsakes options 1,2 and 3 and decides to get a real live Israeli to do the job. And who does he see first? An unassuming fruit vendor. So this poor guy who is weighing a pile of clementines has a cell phone shoved into his face.

“You speak English?” Amir begs him. He nods affirmatively, throwing a bag of potatoes on the scale.

“Good. Please find me someone on the phone who speaks English.”

This is a typical aliyah moment: us frustrated olim are so helpless, we can’t even make a phone call. So lost and pathetic, we don’t even know anyone who can help. But hey, we’re in Israel and everyone here loves to help.

The fruit guy confesses that navigating through Bituach Leumi is hard even for Israelis. Dropping our phone into a box of cucumbers, he suggests we stop wasting our precious cell phone time and just drive there.

We arrive at the office and they won’t let us in. There is a note on the door that we can’t read and a woman from inside speaks to us through a microphone. Our response to whatever she is asking is, “Does anyone speak English there.”

Silence. Amir assumes that the office must be on strike. We wait.

Finally a guy comes out to help. In English, he explains that half of this office, the part that I need, has relocated to another part of the city and, miracle of miracles, it is open for one more hour today. We get directions and head over there.

The line up is out the door and this is just the queue for security. Security is tighter than that in most airports; we have our bags searched, we empty our pockets. As we walk through a metal detector, our bags are x-rayed. Machines beep and ding, armed guards hold their guns close and we slowly file into a massive room the size of a central bus station.

Chairs fill the room. People sit bored in these chairs, staring listlessly at electronic numbers that never move. Amir gets us a ticket stub. Number 124. I look at the number on the screen. It is 116. Not bad, I think.

It’s been a lot worse. One time, we went to the Misrad Hapanim to get a passport. Our number was at least 50 behind the flashing number…that is, until Amir spied a discarded stub on a table. He slyly shuffled over to it and, when no one was looking, scooped it up fast up as if it were a pesky fly. He then opened his palm a tiny bit and said, “Look what I got!” I peeked and saw that he had the next number in line! It was like Jack bringing down the golden goose from his latest trip up the beanstalk. We chuckled over that one for ages, so proud that this find had gained us back another hour from our day.

Looking around this vast room, it seems as if the whole country is right here; young soldiers in their khaki uniforms; religious women with flowing head scarves; tiny babies asleep in their strollers; toddlers darting under the chairs; a school age kid with his finger up his nose; old men with walkers; young women in tight jeans and stilettos; and people crying. Yes. First there is anger, stomping, screaming. People crane their necks to see who is making the commotion. A hard-faced woman sits behind the counter, stonily watching someone’s sad life being vented at her. Then tears. But these clerks are immoveable and eventually the victim packs up their documents and wearily slinks away.

The numbers on the electronic board do not move. Yet time does and my day eventually slips by. I soon notice that people are so eager to get to the wicket, if one does not move the second the number appears, the spot could be snatched up by a number vulture, eager to prey on anyone who gets distracted. So I sit and stared at the board, then get into take off position when I think my number is next. And I make it without a fight!

However, my clerk does not speak English. As I try to assemble some basic Hebrew words in my head, Amir appears and says he will take over. And he does well. In the end, I have to fill in one form and wait a week. And I don’t even have to pay anything.

I am told that this problem occurred because I was supposed to report to the post office one and a half years ago to register for national insurance. How was I supposed to know this? I can’t even make a simple phone call. It just took the government that long to catch up with me.

So now I exist on a form on someone’s desk in Kfar Saba. And I hope to be input into a system. It’s well past lunch time, my kids are coming home from school already and I feel like I haven’t accomplished anything significant.

Yet that’s how life is in Israel. When you have your coffee in the morning, you just never know if it’s gonna be one of those days……

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