Sunday, April 26, 2015

The search for learning

Yesterday our 10 Shabbat lunch guests included a ninth grade boy who I have known from afar for several years. I was vaguely aware of his age -- I knew he was bar mitzvahed -- but that was about all the background information I had on him. Teenage boys who are neither friends of my sons, family friends, or my English students, are outside of my frame of reference. That said, I am proud to say that does not leave many unaccounted for.

After a few hours of eating, talking and some board game playing in a second room, I finally began asking the boy some questions. I would have asked him sooner but I doubt he could have been more quiet and compared to my own very boisterous sons and almost constantly hormonal daughter I honestly didn't really notice him.

Imagine my surprise when I discovered that he was in ninth grade in the same yeshiva that my boys attended. (Notice that I said "attended". I'll get back to that in a second.)

I turned to my son, who as far as my monthly credit card bill states, is still in 12th grade, and I say to him: "Z, did you know that N (the ninth grader) is at Herzog (the school) with you?"

Z: Ema, I know.

Me: Well you never mentioned it when he walked in today.

Z: Yeah, we talked about the ninth grade rabbis for a while.

Me, turning to N: I hope he's being nice when he sees you (he has a bit of a reputation for his intimidation glare) and he isn't giving you his scary look. If he is you can tell me and I'll handle him!

N: (silently nodding and acknowledging the entire conversation)

Z: Ema, what do you think? I barely ever see him. I don't go to school that much!

And therein lies the issue. My 12th-grade son doesn't go to school that much!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

If that comment was meant to soothe me, rest assured, it did not. 

As far as I can tell, school begins in earnest in 10th grade in Israel and as you can see, it wraps up at the end of 11th grade and if you're lucky parents, there might even be some learning in 12th grade. So, at best, you are looking at two to two-and-a-half years of real education.

Most major exams are taken in 11th grade here, with a few remaining in 12th grade. Twelfth grade is also the time to re-do exams that didn't go that well in 11th grade. What it comes down to is that the average 12th grader (as far as I can tell) spends most of 12th grade doing anything but going to school and then puts a final push on in May and June for their few remaining exams. And all the while, at least in my case, parents are paying the schools' monthly tuition.

There are definitely some 12th graders working hard in school here; I've seen them. But according to what I hear it is because their schools divide up the national exams into different groupings. There are also kids who are good students yet seem to spend an inordinate amount of time at the beach .... some with surf boards. 

All I know is that it is nothing like what I expected education to look like in the State of the People of the Book. I worked hard in 12th grade right down to the last exam. But that was a generation and an entire ocean ago. Who knows, maybe I was learning in all the wrong places and I should have just gone to the beach.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

I'd like to try those on ...

You would be hard pressed today to find anyone outside of a Corporate Marketing Department to insist that customer service is not a dying art. In fact, great customer service is already dead and anything but the most basic customer awareness is a thing of the past. But as far as I am concerned there is no place on Earth where customer service is in such a late stage of utter decomposition than in Israel. And I have proof.

Yesterday I walked in to the Shoe department of the Ra'anana branch of Israel's only department store, Hamashbir. I just ran the word hamashbir through Google translate and what a surprise .... it doesn't seem to mean anything. It apparently doesn't do anything either. (Addendum: I asked my friend Sherri who I met in the work-out room today what Hamashbir means and she -- a much more knowledgeable Jew than moi -- said that she thinks it is connected to the grain storage halls in Egypt during the time of Joseph and probably means that it is a place where you can find whatever you need! Ha! The irony just won't quit.)

I had seen a pair of sandals or three the night before when I was there with my son, shopping for his new shoes. Unfortunately shopping with my son does not include time for me to even consider looking at anything that interests me, so I made a mental note to return the next day.

The next day I returned early and went straight to three pairs of shoes that I wanted to try on. After playing a five-minute game of hide-and-seek with the one and only person in the Shoe department, I asked her if she could get me the shoes in my size. She left carrying all three shoes.

After waiting about 15 minutes, I was considering sending out a search party. Another customer wandered innocently in to the area and asked me if there was someone working in the department. I said that I last saw the sales lady 15 minutes ago and that by now she was probably half way to Jordan. Five minutes later she returned with the same three shoes and nothing else.

Here's the conversation that followed. Please keep in mind that I held my end in the world's most ungrammatical Hebrew.

Me: Did you find the shoes?

Sales lady: I can't find them.

Me: What? They're the new Spring shoes.

Sales lady: The shoes are all in shipping boxes in the back, and I don't have time to look for them because I am here alone. (Please note that at least two other sales people were standing around doing absolutely nothing but they would not help out because they didn't work in "Shoes".)

Me: Then why are they on the display shelves if they are not available?

Sales lady: They are available.

Me: Okay, then I want to try these three in size 37.

Sales lady: It's not possible because they are in big shipping boxes and I can't unpack them now.

Me: So they aren't available.

Sales lady: Not now. If you want to come with me I will show you. (Suddenly she had time to leave the sales floor.)

Assuming that she was a lazy oaf, I agreed to follow her and prove her wrong. Off we went to the loading dock of the Ra'anana branch of Hamashbir... where I came face-to-face with about a dozen huge shipping boxes that apparently held most of the new season's shoes.

Sales lady: Go ahead and have a look.

Me: You want me to open these boxes and look for the shoes?

Sales lady: Why not?

Next thing I knew I was unpacking boxes in the loading dock in search of any of the three shoes I wanted. After another seven or eight minutes we had managed to find only one of the three.

When I told her that I still wanted to try on the other two, she told me to come back tomorrow.

It sounded wholly plausible that the shoes would be unpacked by the next day since they were the Spring offering and it is now Spring in Israel. Stupid me.

I arrived there this morning and guess what? None of the new shoes had been further unpacked.

By this point I was starting to lose it and much to the amusement of the skeleton staff working there, I asked to speak to the manager. I really wished I had video taped what happened next because it was more ridiculous than I can possible describe.

Me: Lior (I now knew the manager's name was Lior). If there are shoes on the shelves then doesn't that mean they are available to buy?

Lior: Of course.

Me: Then why can't anyone who works here find the shoes so I can try them on and maybe buy them? Don't stores exist to sell things to customers? If not, what are you all doing here? In America (that really pisses them off) if you ask to try on something that is on the shelves then someone goes and gets it for you. That's how stores work in America. They put things on shelves so customers know they are available.

Lior: That's how it works here too.

Me: I don't think so.

In an effort to show me what a dumb "American" I was, he made a few calls that sounded very impressive. Then we stood and waited. Then we waited some more. And then some more. Then Lior made another call that sounded distinctly more peeved than the previous call.

Me: Do you see the problem now?

Lior: (silent glare, subtle shrug and then finally resignation)

Lior: Okay, give Edna (the original sales lady) your name and phone number and she will call you when we find the shoes.

For those of you sitting on the edge of your seats wondering what happened .... At 6:00 pm tonight my cell phone rang and it was Edna. She had the shoes.

I rushed in and bought them before anything else could happen and when I said good-bye, thank you (never burn a bridge in a Shoe department) and do not expect to see me tomorrow, the sales lady, the cashier and the sales lady in the adjacent department all waved, smiled, called me by my name and wished me a good evening. I guess you could say that I actually got what I came for.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Swimming logic in Israel

Every August 31st pools and beaches throughout Israel are swarming with people who are frolicking in the water. It's not surprising considering how hot it is here at that time of the year.  However, 24 hours later, it is still as hot as it was a day before, but if you go to a pool there will be a noticeable absence of swimmers and pool-side loungers. Why? From what I can gather from asking around, once it is September it is no longer swimming season. The date is just an arbitrary -- yet non-negotiable -- line in the sand (pun intended).

The exact opposite is true of Pesach vacation. Pesach almost always falls in April and more often than not, public pools are clean and full of water .... and families. The weather is not nearly as hot as it is on September 1st, but according to some unwritten but nationally understood rule, people are in bathing suits. Wet bathing suits. Why? Again, from what I can ascertain, April is return-to-the-water time.

My Canadian brain simply cannot accommodate this logic. When it is 35C plus on September 1st, which it has been every year since we arrived, there is nothing you can do to keep me away from a watery respite. And that is saying a lot because there has to be skin-peeling heat to get me to that point. On the other hand, yesterday when the thermostat hit 29C for the first time since last November, everyone was in bathing suits -- myself included. Granted, it was very warm but the water didn't know that yet and it was still uncomfortably cold.

How do I know that? I ventured one toe into the pool and made an executive decision that there would be no second-toe follow-up for a few months. And I trust my toe. I grew up where you had to run the one-toe-test in various bodies of water as late as the first week of August. Even then you had to be prepared for a major cold-water provoked muscle spasm in the arch of your foot. I would like to see all the Israeli April swimmers deal with one of those crushing spasms in the arches of their feet. It is not something that you quickly forget.

In the meantime it just dawned on me that I have a similar set of expectations about winter; hats and gloves in particular. No matter how cold it was in Canada, I would have never considered wearing gloves prior to December. And I would have had to be forced into wearing a hat before January. There was no particular reason for those dates other than a subconscious belief that caving into the cold prior to those dates would have simply seemed weak and wrong.

We also wore shorts in the 20C summer days of Cape Breton Island simply because it was summer and under no circumstances were we going to miss it -- even if it forgot to arrive in the first place. You might need a heavy Fair Isle sweater and Kodiak work boots, but you were going to wear shorts because it was July.

Hmmmm. Maybe Israel swimming logic is clear to me after all.

Sunday, April 5, 2015

Thanks for the input; keep it to yourself

I really have to make it a point to stop speaking to people who do not live in Israel about Israel. My world view is apparently offending Jews who do not live here, left, right and center. In truth, I don't think I really care if I offend those people -- the bigger question for me is why I don't care. I thought I was nicer than that. Boy, apparently you can really delude yourself if you so choose.

Today was the most recent example of me offending someone who doesn't live in Israel and thought that I might be interested in their point of view about Israel. When that person said "well, I don't think that Jews outside of Israel should say negative things about Israel in public, but I do think that they are entitled to their opinions and should be able to discuss them with friends."

First let me say that, generally speaking, everyone is entitled to their opinions. However, for me, when it comes to Jews who do not live here giving opinions about how the country should operate, I really do not think that those Jews are entitled to their opinions. Israel should give back land. Israel should placate the US. Israel should share Jerusalem with the Palestinians. Israel should do this or it should do that.

So here is my response -- which I am sure is bound to make me more enemies than friends. Ma nishtana halaila hazeh?

Israel, as a country, is in a unique international position. Most Western countries today are populated by a religious majority and many minority groups who have found ways to co-exist with the majority. The religious majority, being the majority, assumes that most national religious decisions are based on their belief system. So all is well and good. The religious majority is not focused on the politics of other countries with similar belief systems simply because they have a similar belief system. I doubt, for example, that Canadian Christians spend much time worrying about the collective well-being of Christianity in the US or England. The same cannot be said for Israel.

Israel, as a predominantly Jewish country, has the benefit of input from every self-acknowledged Jew in the whole damn world. Ths is due in part to the government telling them that this is their country -- note to government: I think you are over-playing that card, so find a new catch phrase. It is also due to the fact that Jews, being Jews, feel an innate entitlement to comment on Israel's comings and goings.

Therefore, external Jews feel they are entitled to judge how things work here. They are not. I do not believe that most of us here are interested in how you think this country should operate. You think we should share Jerusalem, stop settlement building and give back a piece of our already minuscule slice of land. In turn, you will be able to hold your heads high as tolerant Jews -- a safe distance from the fall-out of your lofty opinions -- as you go one with your daily lives.

That's nice. Thanks for your input. Of course, if we start taking your advice (so that you can feel good about being fair and reasonable Jews) and we are all wiped out because suddenly the people who hate us to the core of their very beings have easy access to us (thanks to your very useful input) it won't change your lives one iota. You will continue living without fear -- going to the grocery store, the mall or even the office without an additional ounce of concern. We, of course, will not. We will be here trying to survive the consequences of your totally unwelcomed and half-baked input.

I could probably give a hundred more examples, but this is a blog, not a book. Instead, let's agree that unless you are willing to throw your lot in with Israel 24/7, then you should just shut-up. You don't want Bibi to speak for you -- then you, under no circumstances, should speak for us. I won't bother mentioning that the doors are always open to you because, dear heavens, I know you don't want to live here and possibly suffer the consequences of the input from other self-entitled Jews living comfortably outside of Israel.

In the event that you are interested in joining us, my best guess is that the next election will be in 2-3 years.