Saturday, September 4, 2010

The Incomplete Complete Day: First Day in Israel

Lesson one: jetlag is a good form of torture. I am almost certain you could get me to spill state secrets for just one night of normal sleep. But since I am not privy to state secrets, you’ll have to settle for my old email password which doesn’t work anymore since I forgot it once and had to replace it with a simpler password. If you know any easier way to get over jetlag, you can be the proud owner of an invalid password.

After falling asleep at 6 this morning and waking up at the ass crack of noon, DH and I remembered we actually are in Israel. It was like a little extra gift left over from Christmas morning. Re-energized, we quickly made a list of the most important things to get accomplished on our first day in Israel.

  1. Open a bank account. Money doesn’t grow on trees here in Israel, only citrus and sarcasm.
  2. Get our Israeli cell phones. Or pelephones—fun Hebrish word of the day. 
  3. Go look at a few apartments, so I can feel like less of a homeless drifter.
  4. Buy dog food.

This list is painless enough to accomplish in one day. We decide to make our first day as uncomplicated as possible as not to overwhelm ourselves. Lesson two: uncomplicated doesn't translate well in Hebrew.

First we call Bank HaPoalim. They aren’t open. What?! It’s 1pm on a Thursday. Why isn’t the bank open at 1pm? Lesson two: Israelis have the equivalent of a siesta time from 1pm until 3pm. Man, I’m loving Israel already. So, we wait around the house until 3 and head to the bank.

We’re told to put DH’s teudat zeut number (Israeli social security number) into this an ATM type machine and in return it gives us a number. When our number pops up on the screen, someone at a window will help us. DH and I patiently wait for 2 to flash across the screen and when it does, we excitedly jump from our seats. We then realize the screen doesn’t say which of the 20 windows to go to and every window is already full. We ask a woman behind the counter and she sends us to Mr. Cohen, the director of the bank. We wait for Mr. Cohen for 15 minutes and Mr. Cohen tells us to go to Hanna in the 3rd window. Hanna asks us to sit at her desk while she finishes up the last bit of paperwork from her previous customer. When Hanna comes back after another 15 minutes, she kicks us out of her office and tells us to go see Ayala.

Ayala takes our passports, marriage certificate and DH’s aliyah documents to make copies. She tells us it will only take about half an hour to finish the paperwork and get our bank account open. Half an hour later, Ayala comes back with the copies and asks for DH’s teudat zeut. DH writes down his number and hands it to her. No, no, no!! Ayala needs his actual teudat zeut card. Which we, of course, don’t have. Ayala informs us she cannot help us without a teudat zeut card.  DH, of course, doesn't want to be a typical American frier (pushover) and tries to talk his way out of it.  No luck this time.

We have to go to Ministry of Immigration to get his teudat oleh then go to the Ministry of Interior to get his teudat zeut in Tel Aviv. And the Ministry is closed on Friday and Saturday. We can’t get cell phones without money, we can’t rent an apartment without a bank account. Our first day is over exactly where we started. Oh, we did manage to buy dog food thanks to my amazing fellow expat friend, Blondini, who emailed me the address of the closest pet store in Hadera. Thank you Blondini! So we did get one thing accomplished!

The first and maybe most important phrase I learned today is yi’yeh beseder. If you were a fan of Disney’s The Lion King, it is sort of the Israeli version of hakuna matata and it is a salve for any affliction. This is not the first or last time we will run into roadblocks. This is not the last of the frustrating bureaucracy.

We head to DH’s Aunt and Uncle S's house for cafĂ© and oogah (coffee and cake). It is quite something to watch DH relive his childhood. He says everything in Israel smells the exact same as he remembered, a mixture of onions and spices and lemons. But everything is much smaller than he remembered. Probably because he is much bigger than he was 15 years ago. The cliff in the front yard is really only a few steps high. The giant stone wall in the kitchen is only a few feet across.

After Shimon’s house, we then head to his Safta’s (grandmother’s) house. Her house is perfectly cared for and white. Everything is white. The walls, the furniture, the floors. The backyard is filled with exceptionally tended to plants and trees of every kind. My mother in law cuts off a piece of aloe vera from the yard to put on the massive mosquito bite on my arm (apparently Israeli mosquitoes only have a taste for blonde American blood because no one else was bitten).

Safta kisses me on both cheeks (the customary greeting in Israel) and is embarrassed she doesn’t have any gifts for us. She is upset with my mother in law for surprising her. She would have had a feast prepared if she knew we were coming. In any case, she brings out 3 heaping plates of nuts and fruit with 3 different types of juice to choose from. Everything tastes a bit different here. The fruit and nuts are more flavorful. The juice is sweeter. Eighty seven years have carved Safta’s face. I marvel over this small woman and am a little intimidated by the matriarch of this huge Israeli family I have been thrust into. She welcomes me with open arms and says “No English, motek (sweetie).” I can’t figure out if she doesn’t want me to speak English or she is apologizing for her inability to speak English. Either way, she’s accepted me and that is one less hurdle to cross.

I’m introduced to another aunt and uncle and one of 30 more cousins I have to meet. I hope there isn’t a family tree quiz after this. Most of the family doesn’t speak English well enough to feel comfortable talking with me, but I am amazed by how much Hebrew I picked up already and DH and my mother in law are wonderful translators.

We didn’t achieve much on the official to-do list, but I got so much more out of spending hours with DH’s family.

I can’t explain the culture shock, the moments of absolute fear and joy I feel during small moments like these. The weird and wonderful feeling when I once again remember that this is now home. It will take time to get used to, but in the end...yi’yeh beseder.


  1. Glad you found some dog food! I was happy to help.

    We spent about 2 hours in the bank while we were setting things up. Hopefully you can get the Teudat Zehut and Teudat Oleh sorted out--what a pain.

    Sounds like your family experience was similar to mine. G also views Israel in his past experiences at his Uncle Shimon's house. The first Friday night meeting all 20 cousins was a major culture shock but very welcoming.

    Shabbat Shalom,

  2. Congrats Cassie on your accomplishments or in some cases non ya and miss you..