Sunday, June 30, 2013

GUEST POST: From My Mirpesset #9 - Sweet and Ripe, June 2013

I step out into the early morning, before the sun peeks over the rooftops and washes my salon it its brilliance. The plums are ripe and dangling over my mirpesset, the tree reminds me of a childhood book illustration - the sugar plum tree always held fascination.  Ripe fruit for the picking, like life's opportunities, will shrivel on the branch if not enjoyed at the right time.  I fill my bowl.  I will share these with my neighbor, my shabbat host, I will cook plum chicken and let the purply juice sweeten the sauce.  I will taste the sweetness of life and dance like a sugar plum fairy.

Summer is here and up the street in Bustan Brodi the ripening pomegranates hang covered with bakery bags for protection, like some sort of bizarre cheese danish tree.  

How did it get to be summer so fast?  Spring was a blur of apartment hunting activities, days bookended with internet searches, peppered with realtors and punctuated with architects and building engineers.  I barely remember Pesach and spent lots of time looking up while walking down streets - for the perfect mirpesset to buy, an inviting building, a peaceful setting.  After ten weeks of intensity, a deal was made but fell through at the last minute.  Now wiser and far more educated about the whole process, I look forward to resuming the search in the fall.  It's a whole new way to tour the neighborhood - from the inside out.

It was our fourth year of aliyah, but a year of many firsts.  My first time appearing in billboard advertisements on Emek Refa'im, a total surprise after the August photo shoot with fellow teachers and Studio 6 students.  What a surprise to cross Tzomet Oranim one day a few weeks later and look up to see myself smiling down at me, character shoes and all.
 
Michelle is the second from the left, holding a sign.
 
Our first election, voting for the 19th Israeli Knesset; our first European vacation together -  to the south of France.  Our first succah in Israel, purchased on Rehov Palmach and slung over our shoulders like giant skis for the three minute trek home.  We managed to nab the prime garden spot in front of our building, just below our mirpesset.  

Oh yes, our first gas masks.

One message of Succot is G-d's ever-present protection, but attending a lecture from the Home Front Command couldn't hurt either.  The "Pikud HaOref" - literally "the command for the back of the neck" - instructed us on staying safe during a missile attack.  We learned more than we ever cared to know about the physics of shock waves and shrapnel.  A few weeks later there were a two air raid sirens in Jerusalem.  During one we got to meet neighbors from the next building in our shared bomb shelter; the second siren was mid-day, mid-week and I never heard it through the thick walls of my modern office building where our physical therapy practice is located.  Marty, out on a bike ride, got prone on the ground until ten seconds after the siren ended as we had been instructed to do if out in a place where there is no shelter.  Fortunately no damage was done by the missiles, may they be the last ones.

All of this was quickly forgotten when my attention turned back to the myriad choreography and dance projects of the year.  "Anything Goes", the Jerusalem Speakeasies Cabaret, the One Billion Rising flash mob. I studied ballet and tap and I found myself teaching up to five classes a week, including a Pilates Dance Lab, a private class of bereaved mothers and ninth graders at the Hartman Girls School.  

Teaching in a mirror-less temporary classroom, with dusty floors and walls lined with posters of Chemistry Nobel Prize winners from the Technion, I push aside the desks and chumashim and spread out my Broadway Jazz CDs. The girls come bouncing in and together we became "One Singular Sensation". Fourty-five minutes later they are singing their way to their next class.  The burly school guard bids me shabbat shalom even though it's only Thursday and I step out onto bougainvillea-lined Rehov Elroi.

A passer-by might be surprised to hear "Hot Honey Rag" coming from that temporary classroom.  Jerusalem is full of surprises.  Was it my imagination or did I hear a cat meow "Oy", a baby babble "Dayenu"?  

You don't have to get drunk to become confused on Purim, reality is confusing enough.  From the Arab children getting their faces painted at the Mamilla Purim festival, to the "grogger" smart phone application one woman used at Shir Chadash's megilla reading.  

In early spring we munched our way down Mount Gilboa dotted with its famous purple irises and red calaniot, tasting white garlic flowers and hyssop, wild sage and sugar flowers.  Another time we plucked ripe figs from a grand old tree. Yum.  

We cycle on the new bike path through the village of Beit Safafa exchanging "boker tov"s with Arab women in hijabs and Nikes, mutually admiring each other's six-in-the-morning determination.  The new path is a welcome improvement in the urban landscape.

Le'at, le'at.  To my amazement, the Jerusalem Light Rail has actually hired workers to instruct the populace in the correct way to get on and off a train.  Standing at the train doors, handing out brochures and little candies with a simple picture and a simple message, "Kodem yotzim, v'achar cach nichnasim". "First people get off, then you get on."  Yes, it is pathetic that this kind of education needs to be done, but it really has made a difference.

They say that Israelis are like sabra fruit - prickly on the outside, soft on the inside. Strangers look out for one another and acts of kindness are everywhere.  I watched one woman get up from lunch with her family at a shopping mall eatery to carry packages to the parking garage for another mother struggling with a tantrum-y toddler. My own good samaritan efforts on-the-street: alerting novice cyclists when their bike seats are too low and gesturing wildly to motorists who forget to turn their headlights on at dusk. Tikkun olam, bit by bit.  

As we end this year of firsts Marty is already embarking on an unlikely repeat.  For the second time he is riding in Bike 4 Friendship http://sponsor.bike4friendship.org/mgordon555 
from San Diego to New York City with a bunch of cyclists at least forty years younger than he.  Kol Hakovod Marty!      

Doves coo and flutter outside my kitchen window.  They splay their russet and gray feathers and alight.  My senses are filled with Jerusalem and my soul is at home.  Soon I will alight and fly to my first homeland.  Hope to see you there.

Wishing you abundance and sweetness.  

From my mirpesset with love,

Michelle


Thursday, June 20, 2013

Paradigm Shifts for Americans Banking in Israel


In April of 2012, I wrote a popular post about banking in Israel. It was based on tidbits I picked up over time and some advice from other olim. There's a lot of good info there, and I encourage you to read that post too.

I'm returning to the topic because tonight, courtesy of MATI, Israel's small business service center, I heard a lecture all about banking in Israel. The lecture was given by former banker and Financial Consultant Rifka Lebowitz. Rifka's first language is English, so she was able to clearly communicate things that many olim stumble upon and maybe, eventually, if they're lucky, figure out.

If you're new in Israel, or on your way here, the best advice I can give you is to forget all your assumptions about how banks work. There are certain paradigm shifts you need to make in order to understand the banking system here.

Paradigm Shift #1: FEES - Israeli banks think of themselves as service providers. Each service they provide has a fee attached to it. As an example, just as you pay for each can of peas you buy in a grocery store, so you pay for each transaction that occurs in your account. Transaction fees range from 1.35 NIS up to 2.90 NIS/transaction. Teller transactions cost more - from 5.50 NIS to 6.80 NIS.

There are fees for everything you do inside your account.

Once you've established a relationship with a banker (something Rifka highly recommends), you can negotiate these and other fees but you cannot eliminate them. There's no such thing as free checking in Israel. Kacha Ze.

Postscript: After this post was published, a few people mentioned that members of the Israeli teachers' union (and perhaps other unions) can get very significant reductions in bank fees.

Paradigm Shift #2: BRANCHES - The Bank of Israel is the government's regulatory bank. Beneath them are five main banking groups - Bank Leumi, Discount Bank, First International Bank, Bank HaPoalim and Mizrachi-Tefachot. There are some private banks that operate outside this system, but these are the major players.

You have to think of each branch operating like an independent franchise. Most transactions cannot be handled at another branch of the same banking group. When you establish your account at one particular branch, that becomes your bank. Bank branches are not interchangeable in Israel. Kacha Ze.

Paradigm Shift #3: PASSING CHECKS - In Israel, third-party checks are a kind of black market currency. Let's say you wrote a check for 500 NIS to the woman who runs the local preschool. Even if you made the check out to her specifically, she can use that check just like cash to buy groceries. And the owner of the grocery can use it to pay his mechanic. And so on. Your original check can be used like cash, circulating all over Israel for up to 6 months, before anyone actually attempts to cash or deposit it. Kacha Ze.

There are ways to avoid this happening to your check. You can get your checks pre-printed with two parallel black lines (called "cross") and the words l'mutav bilvad inside. This is a signal to the bank that the check cannot be transferred to a third party (or a 4th or a 12th).


You can draw the lines and write l'mutav bilvad on your checks. But the best protection is to have the cross and l'mutav bilvad printed on your checks from the very beginning

Paradigm Shift #4: ACCOUNT STRUCTURE - In Israel, each account has different sub-accounts. So you have one main account which might include sub-accounts for savings, checking, investments, etc. This one is not so hard to accept, but it is important to understand if you come from the US where each account has its own account number.

Paradigm Shift #5: KNOW YOUR BANKER - Bankers in Israel have a lot of discretion and it's important to have a good working relationship with one. Unless you're fluent in Hebrew, find an English speaking banker and make sure he or she knows you. Your banker can make a lot of things happen to your benefit - letting a check through when you have insufficient funds, raising your credit/debit card limit, extending overdraft, reducing fees, etc. Israel is the Middle East. Knowing your banker is your protexia (Israeli protection) for getting anything even slightly out-of-the-ordinary done at the bank. The good news is that decisions are not made by some anonymous bureaucrat who doesn't know you, but by a banker in your local branch who actually does. 

Paradigm Shift #6: CREDIT RATING - There is no national credit rating system in Israel. But your bank is keeping tabs on you, assessing your banking behavior and your general responsibility with handling your account. You'll be assigned an internal rating according to the bank's algorithm (which you'll never officially know about). Kacha Ze.

Paradigm Shift #7: CREDIT CARDS ARE REALLY DEBIT CARDSYou have a monthly credit limit and you can charge up to that limit. At the end of the billing period, the entire balance is deducted from your account. There is no such thing as making a minimum payment and thereby accumulating credit card debt. 
 
Further, if you're really new in Israel and have no financial resources to speak of, you might be issued a direct card, which means that each transaction will be debited from your account (with a fee for each one) as you incur them. Kacha Ze.

I wish someone would have explained all this to me when I first arrived. It's not rocket science, but it does require you to make a few paradigm shifts.

Just remember Dorothy. You're not in Kansas anymore.







Tuesday, June 04, 2013

Earning the Right to Kvetch About Israel: Guest Post by Alison Stern Perez


 
Alison Stern Perez

Aliyah, Redux: The end of my ‘Dark Age of Aliyah’
Blessed to bitch about the Holy Land
“[Living in Israel] is both such a gift and such an amazing accomplishment.”
This has been an intense month for Israel and her citizens, as we celebrated Yom Ha-Zikaron, Memorial Day, and Yom Ha-Atzma’ut, Independence Day, two weeks ago, and the week before that we commemorated Yom Ha-Shoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day. It’s always an emotional and contemplative period and, as it does every year, it got me thinking.

I remember feeling elated upon first arriving in Israel, enthralled by the sights and sounds and fascinated by this people I had never encountered before and couldn’t begin to understand – linguistically, culturally or emotionally.  I was excited about the challenge and eagerly dug into the task of learning about my new country and integrating myself as best and as quickly as possible.  And I remember the feeling that the honeymoon was over, around the time that I was contemplating my own honeymoon – but I was being thwarted at every turn in my attempts to prove that I was Jewish “enough” to get married in an Orthodox ceremony in my new homeland.

And thus began a rather extended period that I am beginning to view as “the dark years” of my aliyah, in which I have felt disconnected, disenchanted, often discombobulated, and even more often profoundly disturbed by this people who I still barely understand. 

Yes, my life was going along relatively well, and I have never (yet) regretted making aliyah.  But my relationship with my first love, Israel, has taken some punches and become a bit worse for wear, a bit less idealistic. Over the past few years, the more I have come into direct contact and confrontation with Israelis, the more conflicts and clashes I have experienced, and the more I have come to dislike them.  These days, as you all may have noticed, I find myself complaining to no end, deeply ensconced in my own egotistical sense of injustice, lack of comprehension and utter frustration.

And then, two weeks ago, I came across one of those sappy Yom HaAtzma’ut Facebook posts, the ones that used to make me sigh affectionately and wax poetic about my love for Israel and yes, for the past few years, have only made me snort in derision and comment bitterly, “Just you wait until you’ve been here for longer than a minute!”  This post, titled, “65 Things I Love About Israel,” was written by Keren Hajioff, who had immigrated three years ago.

At first, I considered not even reading it.  I had been cut off not once, but four times that morning on my 10-minute commute to the university campus and I couldn’t even imagine coming up with one thing I loved about Israel, much less 65.  But I decided to click on the post anyway, hoping somewhere deep down that I could find something to restore my faith in Israeli humanity.

I definitely snorted through the first few items – “#1: I love that there are Israeli flags absolutely everywhere.” Yeah, yeah, so what. Waving a flag doesn’t mean the person is going to be nice to you – but then something in me began to shift.  “#7: I love that under a week of knowing someone, he invited me to his wedding.”  That’s true, Israelis really are like that.  And #6 really is true, and wonderful – we do stop what we’re doing at the sound of the Yom Ha-Zikaron siren, stand stock-still and come together as a people for those two glorious and exquisitely painful minutes.

And then #24 hit me like a ton of Israeli-made bricks:  “I strangely love that people here complain so much about Israel. For people to complain so much about this country, means that they have forgotten about how great of a miracle it is that we have it. Why do I love the fact that people have forgotten how great it is that Israel is ours? Because it means we are used to it. Why are people used to it? Because it has been ours for 65 years. That is something that I am very happy about. So, the more people complain, the more I am reminded that Israel is ours.”

And this, I do believe and tentatively declare, heralds the end of my “Dark Age of Aliyah.”  Because it is so, so true.  Because every bitter and whining complaint, no matter how completely justified or painful, that seeps out of my mouth really does both totally reflect and totally take for granted one immutable fact:  I live in Israel.  No, I feel I must say it again:  I live in Israel.


And I can say, without any hint of sappiness, this is both such a gift and such an amazing accomplishment.  Some days I still cannot believe it, and other days I am steeped in gratitude for my decision to make aliyah, my fortitude in pursuing this dream and my persistence in continuing to at least attempt to make my dream match my reality.

I live in Israel.  How many people in the world can actually say that?  And how amazing is it that Israel exists at all?  Yes, she may not be perfect, and yes, she may still have some growing (and growing pains) ahead of her, but she is ours – warts and all.  And those of us lucky, audacious and irrepressibly resilient enough to live within and love her must never forget how truly blessed we are to be able to bitch and moan every day of our lives here.


ALISON STERN PEREZ (alisonsternperez@gmail.com or alisonsterngolub.com), a native of Seattle, is a 2000 Brown University graduate.