Paperwork

To be a new immigrant in Israel is to sit in some god forsaken government office and wait your turn.

Twenty years after the advent of the computer and internet and scanning documents, there is still so, so much paperwork. Identity cards with photos in light blue plastic covers and proof of residency cards in dark blue little booklets—one for new immigrants, another for returning residents and perhaps a different one for native Israelis. All that on top of drivers’ licenses and health care cards. Life in Israel is paperwork hell.

I remember vividly my first few forays into the land of administrative encounters when I emigrated twenty years ago—when I had to provide my parents’ wedding contract to prove that they were  Jewish for me to be able to marry in Israel, when I had to change my maiden name to my married name on my ID card. There were no automated systems at that time; people simply crammed into a spartan, hot room and screamed and elbowed their way up to the next available window. Every clerk had to search, open, close and file a new file and record the information by hand.

In the planning stages of this move, I had warned Philippe that I would no longer be Madame-Take-Care-of All-our-Administrative-Details. If he wanted to live in Israel, he was going to have to join me in paper-gatory.

On Tuesday afternoon, 13 days after we arrived, Philippe and I together ventured out into the tightly spun administrative web called bureaucracia. Our first stop: the Ministry of Interior. In order to go to the Ministry of Absorption the following day for a previously scheduled appointment to update our status (once new immigrants, now called returning residents) and determine that of the girls (lumped with us as returning residents even though they never lived here as residents), we had to first obtain a summary of our entries and exits over the past seven years (we are required to travel in and out of the country with our Israeli passports, each of which is computerized). Philippe checked the hours of the Ministry of Interior on their website, and we went bearing our US and Israeli passports and our two-decade old new immigrant booklet. The office opened at 2:30.  We walked in the door at 2:45. The place was empty—no clerk to check us in or hand us a number, no one else waiting in the empty chairs, no hustle or bustle behind the open cubbies. The only thing that registered was how lucky we were that we had beaten the crowd! I had both my book and my laptop, and I wouldn’t have a need for either.

“Can I help you?” one of the only two clerks asked from across the room in Hebrew. One was seated and looked busy while the other was standing, walking toward her, idling.

“I’m here to change our status.”

“But we’re closed. How did you get in?”

“The door was open. My husband just checked the website this morning, which says you’re open today.” Both women started shaking their heads, and I could feel administrative dread seep into my bones. They explained they are open on Monday and Wednesday afternoons; this was Tuesday. It’s a common mistake for many: in Hebrew, Sunday is the first day of the week or yom aleph (a). Philippe probably forgot about Sunday and thought Monday was yom a, which would make Tuesday yom beit (b) even though it is really yom gimel (g).

“Tell me what you need,” the seated woman said.

“We left the country in 1994 and have just returned.  We have to change our status because tomorrow morning we have an appointment at the Ministry of Absorption, who told us we had to come here first for the paper.” The woman acknowledged my request, clearly understanding what we needed.

“Give me your ID number. Let’s see if I can help you.“ I recited my nine-digit number without thinking. She typed it in to her computer.

“Jennifer Lang?”

I nodded my head yes.

“Sit down.”

This kind stranger proceeded to tell us that they were leaving work in 15 minutes but maybe she could take care of us in that time. Could we please hand over our ID cards and passports so she could start? We complied, smiling, relaxed, giddy with luck.

Two, maybe three minutes, passed. Miraculously, this woman began printing our new information sheets to accompany our 20-year-old ID cards with our updated address, which entitled us to a free parking sticker for all blue-and-white striped parking places in Raanana. “Hinei,” she handed us our papers. The printer continued on its merry way. Pages and pages of paper, which, she explained, were summaries of our entries and exits in Israel. First mine, then Daniella’s, then Simone’s, lastly Philippe’s.

“Can I give you a hug?” I asked this woman. She looked up from her computer at me, and we made eye contact for the first time. I saw her as a person, not just as a bureaucrat. She was dressed like a typical Israeli—casually—with a white t-shirt and some word written across her chest in silver sparkles and white pants. Her chestnut brown hair was shoulder length, wavy, and her face was nondescript. But she was warm, willing to help and wanting to make small talk. Like many Israelis we meet, she asked us our vital stats—where we’re originally from, how we met, how old our children are, why we left [Israel], what brought us back. Instead of feeling annoyed by her curiosity, I was amused and repeatedly offered to give her a hug or kiss for her effort and time.

Yesh ba’aya,” she said, “ze’re is a problem.” The printer paper was jamming every few pages, but that wasn’t the problem she meant. It was Philippe’s passport. One stamp from a departure date in February 2008 didn’t correspond to an entry date according to the computer screen in front of her. She leafed through his passport in search of the correct stamp.

Five or six minutes passed as the clerk calmly tried to resolve the discrepancy between Philippe’s passport and the computer.  After consulting her colleague, who didn’t know the answer either, she finally picked up the phone to call someone, perhaps a supervisor or an IT specialist. She reached a human voice, nodded her head yes several times, clicked on her keyboard and handed me the phone, “Tell her thank you,” she said in a hushed Hebrew.

“I want to thank you for your time,” I said into the phone, feeling generous and grateful. “Pleasant day to you.” I handed back the phone, still unsure of who was on the other end.

Zeho. You are done. The dates are fixed.” She printed out Philippe’s papers then put all of them together in a white manila envelope. “Now you take these tomorrow to Misrad haKlitah and they will determine your status,” she said, handing me the precious goods. I bent down to stuff the envelope in my backpack and looked up. My new friend stood up, also ready to leave, and opened her arms. “Give me a hug now,” she said.  I stood and held out my arms to give—and take—that hug. We held one another for a few seconds as I whispered thanks into her ear.

Philippe and I left feeling light and fortunate, repeating how lucky we had been over and over to one another as well as to anyone else who would listen. Looking back, I think it was a combination of good luck and good karma. If you keep your heart open, others will too.

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Making Peace

Shortly after we arrived in Israel a few weeks ago, I was talking with my friend Aviva, who said something that struck me: “This time, you’ve come back with your eyes wide open.”

Indeed, this is not my first time living here; it is my third. When I initially came in April 1989, I only intended to stay for four months to learn Hebrew and live closer to my brother. Shortly after my arrival, I met my future husband Philippe and, slowly, my path changed. I deferred graduate school, we married, I got my Masters at Haifa University, and we had a baby. While living in this faraway land, I developed a love-hate relationship to it.

I loved the deep sense of belonging, as if I were part of something bigger. I loved living history real-time. The day we brought Benjamin home from the hospital when he was born was the day former prime minister Yitzhak Rabin and former PLO leader Yaser Arafat shook hands, making the first move toward peace in my adult lifetime. Yet I couldn’t imagine raising Benjamin in a country that often made me cry. I was scared to visit Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, where busses and cafes were randomly attacked by suicide bombers. In Israel, two of my basic needs were not met: feeling safe and being able to communicate with ease. Plus the distance from my parents in California pained me.

When Benjamin was one, we left for an agreed-upon two years, which eventually turned into three, then four, so on and so on. We stayed away from Israel for 13 years because of me, visiting only in the summer. We kept our distance until August 2007, when, looking for a break from our predictable, upwardly mobile, Westchester County, New York life, Philippe and I relocated our family to Raanana, Israel, for one year.  It was the city where his company was based and which I had never visited until we arrived. Call it an early mid-life crisis or the year of living differently; the name is less important than the impact that year had on our family. Neither Philippe nor Benjamin, almost 15 by the year’s end, wanted to leave their Promised Land. The girls were still young and flexible, willing to stay or go, but I felt vulnerable, unable to cope with the challenges of living in the Middle East. Once again, we left.

As a peace offering to my deeply unhappy husband, I held out an olive branch, one I will never forget that has forever changed my life and that of our family. I offered to return to Israel—again—for a longer, less defined timeframe when the kids were older. We would come after Benjamin graduated from high school, Daniella finished middle school and Simone had her bat mitzvah. He took my offer and clung to it tightly. From the fall of 2008 until August 23, 2011, the day we boarded El Al flight 08 on a one-way ticket to Tel Aviv, Philippe and I dissected, compromised, negotiated, reasoned and finally settled on a plan to return. Many would say I am here reluctantly; while it is true that I would have preferred to stay in the comfort and safety of my White Plains life, I also welcome change, adventure. It is my own personal paradox with which I have often wrestled throughout the years.

Israel, for me, is neither the Holy nor the Promised Land. I do not believe every Jew should live here or that any God commanded me to do so. This blog is my attempt to make peace with my ambivalence about being here, to find the good in a place where I am not always comfortable, where life is far from easy. Israel is a place where I have to think before I speak, in a language that I read and write on a kindergarten level.  It is a place where I try to breathe deeply rather than honk on the horn like everybody else when drivers pull over to buy a newspaper on the side of a narrow road, blocking all the cars behind. A place where I have to force myself to smile at the grocery store cashier even though she is working at a turtle’s pace and pushing weekly discounts at me until I am sputtering. It is a country that still makes me cry, whether from the overly pushy people who do not know how to form lines and wait their turn politely or from the beauty of being surrounded by Jews from all over the world while singing the national anthem before any ceremony.  This third time around is my effort to make it different—to be strong, stay open to all the possibilities and to see the bright side. I have returned with my eyes wide open, as well as my heart.