The Rashbi Mystique

A Curious Note

A few days after my article, “The Last Jew of Peki’in” was published on aish.com,  I received an intriguing email.

Hi, Galia,

I am Ruth de Jong.  I live with my husband, a Shoa survivor, next to the cave of Rashbi in old Peki’in. We’ve been taking care of the cave every day for years. Margalit Zinati is not the only Jewess in Peki’in. We too live in the village. . .

. . . I invite you to come to our place to hear the miraculous story how we came from Holland to Peki’in.

I immediately made arrangements to meet with Ruth and Abel de Jong to hear what would be one of the most remarkable accounts I’ve ever been privileged to hear.

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A World of Unknowns

Ruth was raised in a Christian home in Holland. She was born in 1944, “the most bitter year of the Second World War,” she says.  Her father was a Christian of German descent, although her paternal grandmother was Jewish.  Her mother was non-religious, although she did give her baby a name that was unusual in Holland, especially during the war years:  “Ruth.”  “My mother was pregnant with me under German occupation,” Ruth says, “and she did a lot of gleaning in the harvest fields during the war, as Germans commandeered  food from the Dutch for their own use.”   The post-war years were not a propitious time to claim Jewish ancestry, and Ruth was raised with no knowledge of Judaism or Jewish ritual.  Although she was very young, Ruth’s mother told her about the Jewish people and their fate in the War.

For some unexplainable reason, Ruth always felt drawn to Judaism and even took Hebrew language classes for 3 years. (Many years later she would convert to Judaism through Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, who was living part-time in Israel.)

Ruth’s husband Abel de Jong, now 78, was born in Holland in 1940, the same year  Germany invaded Holland.  He was two years old when the deportations of Jews began.

Abel’s father, a physician, worked as a volunteer – – with a special permit to travel home – – in the modern hospital of the Dutch transit camp, Westerbork.  “After a couple of months, he understood that the trains had a single destination:  Auschwitz. But,” Ruth explains, “he simply had no idea what awaited the Jews upon their arrival there.  He worked very hard to find medicines and food to ensure that sick Jews would be able to survive the journey to Auschwitz, never imagining that most of them would be murdered within 24 hours of their arrival there.”  When it became clear that soon he, too, would be forced to join a transport, he decided the time had come to flee.

Abel’s parents were desperate to find a safe haven but thought their children would have a better chance of survival if they gave Abel and his infant brother Daniel to Dutch Christians.  Meanwhile the parents hoped to escape to neutral Switzerland, from whence they would send for their sons.

Abel was given to a blue-collar childless couple who were religious Dutch Protestants.  They treated him truly like a son.  A few days before, the adoptive family’s patriarch, who lived a short distance away, had been caught harboring 5 Jews in his attic, and he was sent along with the 5 Jews he had hidden to Auschwitz, where he perished.  So it was nothing less than heroic that the son and daughter-in-law of this murdered righteous gentile agreed to take a Jewish infant into their home and under their wing. They changed Abel’s name to a Dutch name, and never discussed his Jewish past, so he did not even realize he was Jewish, although in hindsight, Abel says, “I realized that I never felt fully comfortable by my new identity.  I reclaimed my original Jewish first and last names as an adult.”

Abel’s baby brother Daniel was meanwhile thrust into the arms of another young Dutch Christian family, who wanted nothing to do with him due to the inherent danger in hiding anyone Jewish, especially a baby who was weak and ill.  But Abel and Daniel’s mother made a big scene – – she was wailing hysterically – – and the man agreed to take Daniel temporarily, promising to place him with a different family, who were also childless.

A Failed Rescue

Meanwhile, in March 1943, Abel’s parents began their journey to freedom, traveling through Holland, Belgium, France, and eventually reaching Switzerland.  There, they were caught by Swiss police, arrested as illegal aliens, and sent back over the border straight to German police in Occupied France.  Ironically, had their small children accompanied them on their exodus to Switzerland, they would have been allowed to remain in Switzerland, since at that time the Swiss were willing to grant asylum to refugee families with children.

Once in Occupied France they somehow made it to Brussels, in Belgium.  They paid a female guide to bring them over the Spanish border.  The guide betrayed them, handing them over to the French police, who cooperated with the Nazis.  They were taken to the French transit camp, Drancy, and from there they were transported, separately, to Auschwitz, where Abel’s mother died shortly after arrival.

A Tragic Fate

Arriving at Auschwitz in a cattle car, Dr. de Jong immediately recognized the smell of burning flesh, and realized that Auschwitz was no mere “work camp.” Due to his professional world renown – – according to colleagues of the de Jongs, he had been nominated for a Nobel Prize due to his work with vitamins, diet and nutrition – – he was of great interest to Josef Mengele, who made Dr. de Jong part of the evil Nazi doctor’s Jewish medical staff in Auschwitz.  Abel’s father was himself an identical twin, and he was responsible for examining and cataloging Gypsy and Jewish twins, taking their measurements, weight, and conducted forced experiments with diets.  He survived Auschwitz, but during the camp’s evacuation in January 1945 as Allied forces came closer, he was on a Death March, eventually reaching the satellite camp of KZ Mittelbau-Dora in the heart of Germany.  He was killed there only days before liberation.

Until their final capture, both of Abel’s parents had been secretly able to send letters to their children at their adoptive families’ homes, which were miraculously hidden and preserved by the Dutch adoptive parents, and even more incredible, the parents were somehow able to exchange a few letters between one other, and through the underground these letters somehow made their way to Abel’s adopted family, where Abel saw them for the first time many years after the War after his true identity was made known to him.

Abel’s father’s twin brother was able to escape to England when the war broke out.  There, he was a major figure in the Dutch resistance, and he served as the BBC’s Dutch broadcaster for the underground, where his news reports were transmitted to Holland.  The Germans made it illegal for most Dutch citizens to own a radio, but Abel remembers his adoptive father holding him up to the radio in their home during an illegal broadcast, saying, “Listen to that man on the radio! He is your uncle!”

Life Begins Anew

After the War Abel’s uncle returned to Holland to recover his nephews from their adoptive families.  But Abel could not adjust to his uncle’s family.  He soon began to withdraw emotionally and physically.  The trauma and upheaval were more than the little boy could take; and reluctantly, Abel’s uncle returned him to his adoptive Dutch family.  His brother Daniel also remained with his adoptive Dutch family.  Even though the boys were not far apart in age, they didn’t really relate to one another as brothers, despite their respective adoptive families’ efforts to ensure that they spent time with one another.  This awkwardness would continue between them even in adulthood.  Deep conversations were never successful, and most thoughts and feelings were left unsaid and unexpressed, although they often resorted to practical jokes and humor to communicate with one another.

As a young man, Abel was an iron worker, and fascinated by blacksmithing.  In the neighborhood where he now lived in Leiden, there was a blacksmith with wonderful tools.  Abel loved to engage the man in conversation, and learn more about the trade.  It didn’t hurt that this man had a pretty daughter:  Ruth.  What was the likelihood that Ruth and Abel, both raised as non-Jews but secretly Jewish, would find one another on the same street in a Holland that was mostly devoid of its Jews?  Today they’ve been married for more than 50 years and have four sons, one of whom lives in Israel with his wife and five children.

Meanwhile, they built their life together in the Netherlands.  Abel was now working as a city planner and lawyer, and Ruth was a practitioner of alternative medicine, including acupuncture, psychotherapy, and classic homeopathy.  They were very active, and both loved marathon biking trips across Europe.  They began collecting antiques and Judaica, even though they still knew little about Judaism.  Abel was especially drawn to a 200-year-old oil painting of a rabbi with a Hebrew inscription (which he could not read) in an old shop in Leiden, the Dutch city where he had grown up.  He bought the painting and hung it in Ruth’s clinic in Holland.  Little did they know how prominently this painting would figure in their lives in the coming years.

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The Trial Aliyah

Ruth and Abel began to experience a vague disconnect with the Netherlands.  Holland felt less like home, especially for Ruth after she visited Israel in 1964 and became enamored of that country.  Israel was calling.  In the 1980s, the couple decided to go to Israel for a two-year trial period, with the eventual goal of making aliyah.

They brought only their books,  some clothes, Abel’s blacksmith tools, and the antique oil portrait of a rabbinical figure to whom, as the years passed, they felt very connected.  Ruth was pregnant with her fourth child, Boaz.

They lived for a while in Moshav Amirim in the Galil, a vegetarian village.  During her first weeks there, she had a terrible toothache and was advised to go to the new city of Karmiel to see a dentist.  While awaiting her turn, she met a chassidic rebbetzin in the reception area by the name of Pesia Shtern.  She and her husband were Breslov chassidim, and were caretakers of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai’s burial cave in Meron.  The rebbetzin was excited for Ruth about her upcoming birth, asked Ruth some questions, and wanted to know everything about her.

“When she found out that I was a natural practitioner, she became very excited and told me I must agree to treat the rebbetzin!  So under her guidance I set up a bare-bones acupuncture clinic, and the rebbetzin became my first patient.” Ruth continues, “The ‘office’ had no furniture – – remember, we hadn’t brought our furniture to Israel from Holland.  Abel had welded a frame together to make a bed, and a sheet covering the bed became the examining table.”

There was only one other item in the room:  the portrait of the rabbi with its Hebrew inscription.  When the rebbetzin entered the room, she gasped:  “Where did you get this painting?! It’s the Rashbi! Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai! ” she cried.  “Do you know where you’ve settled?  This is the land of Rashbi!” The very rabbi and tzaddik whose grave the Shterns guarded and maintained!

Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai (the “Rashbi”)

Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai was a Talmudic sage who lived in Israel at the time of the destruction of the Second Temple.   His teacher was the great Rabbi Akiva. The Romans had decreed it illegal to teach Torah, but Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai ignored the decree and was sentenced to death by the Romans for his defiance.  He escaped their clutches after witnessing the tortuous death of martyred Rabbi Akiva, and hid out in various places in the Galilee, finally settling in a cave in Peki’in with his son Rabbi Elazar.  Next to the cave is a spring and a giant carob tree, which sustained him for thirteen years.  It is said that he and his son buried themselves naked up to their necks in sand to preserve their clothes, only putting them on once a week in honor of the Sabbath.  And it was here that many Divine secrets of the universe were revealed to the Rashbi, and where the seeds of the Kabbala began.  He authored the famous book of Kabbala, known as the Zohar.

Rebbetzin Shtern turned to Ruth, and said gravely, “You must be a shaliach (a person on a heaven-sent mission)!”  Indeed, the Rashbi (the acronym for Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai) would figure greatly in Ruth’s life, in a series of signs and weird and wonderful events that could only be Divine Providence, only a few of which will be told in our story today.

Thanks to the Chassidic rebbetzin’s favorable recommendations, soon Ruth’s renown for healing the sick grew and people from all over Israel and abroad came to her acupuncture clinic for treatment.  Meanwhile Abel was working as a welder in Ziv Hospital in Tzfat (since there were no jobs for lawyers with an expertise in Dutch law), and he decided to pay a visit to Rabbi Shtern in nearby Meron.  Rabbi Shtern found lots of work for Abel, and he even started building mikvaos.

Ruth gave birth at home to her son Boaz.  Rabbi Shtern arranged for a mohel to come to Moshav Amirim for the bris, along with hundreds of Breslover chassidim, all bearing food for a festive meal.  Moshav Amirim is a secular moshav, and its residents didn’t quite know what had hit them!  Suddenly their moshav was filled with dancing, singing Chassidim who had gathered around their secular neighbors – Ruth and Abel!  The bris took place under the painting of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, on the “examining table” that Abel had made.

Life during their two “trial” years in Israel was good, but their eldest son, a teenager, was having serious difficulty adapting to Israeli culture, and really struggling psychologically and socially in high school.  Before their trial period began they had made a pact that if any family member was terribly unhappy, they would return to Holland.  With some regret, but for the sake of their son, they returned to the Netherlands at the end of the 2 1/2 years.

Back in Holland, Ruth was both busy and productive, and authored several books on a variety of topics.  But Israel was still very much in her heart, and she found she could no longer tolerate life as a Jew in Holland.   Her only escape from the ensuing depression she suffered was trips to Israel – – she visited every 3 months and continued her work as a therapist all over Israel.  Her husband remained behind in Holland with the children.  Each time she came to Israel, with her husband’s blessing, she visited different parts of the country, trying to find an apartment or house for them to buy, but nothing felt quite right.

Drawn to Peki’in

In 1999, Abel fell ill in Holland.  Ruth advised him to recuperate in Israel, where they had a non-Jewish German friend who lived in Haifa and managed a conference center on Mt. Carmel.  Abel stayed for a month, and while there he met a female Arab tourist guide from Peki’in, which is a primarily Druze village in the Galil with a long Jewish history.  When she learned that Abel and his wife were looking to buy a house in Israel, she suggested that he visit the village.  But in the 1990s public transportation by bus was extremely limited and Abel did not have a car.  After a few tries, he gave up on trying to visit Peki’in.  Feeling much improved, he returned to Holland.  But shortly after his return, he received a birthday invitation to the German friend’s 50th birthday celebration in Haifa.  Abel elected not to return to Israel to attend the party, due to work commitments, but Ruth had a strange feeling that she needed to be at that party, a feeling she could not logically explain.

And so she flew to Israel.  At the party, a Christian Arab man approached her and began speaking to her in German.  It turned out that his sister was the tour guide that Abel had spoken with about Peki’in, and who had invited him to visit.  When Ruth asked about the house, the brother replied that very week, he and his 7 brothers had convened and decided to sell their aging parents’ house!  Ruth became very excited and invited herself to go with him after the party to Peki’in.   She spent the night at the house of his elderly mother.

The very next morning, the man came to his mother’s house to take Ruth on a scenic mountain drive of the area, and show Ruth around the town of Peki’in.  They arrived at the center of Peki’in, where there is a large well fed by a spring.  There was a map of the town affixed to a signpost, and the man pointed out the location of his mother’s home on the map in relation to the well.  Next to his mother’s house on the map was a small star.

“What is the meaning of this star?” Ruth wanted to know.

“Next to the house is a cave under an old carob tree,” the Arab man replied.  “This is where Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai hid from the Romans and where the wisdom of Kabbala was revealed to him!”

The Rashbi!

Divine Providence

Ruth felt chills.  The man was asking an exorbitant price for what was essentially a ruin hanging precariously on a mountainside with a gorgeous view, a price that no sane villager would pay but an unsuspecting foreigner might. (Just how precariously it hung would become apparent a few years later.)

“We knew it was too much, but it was still cheaper than anything in Holland,” she confided, “and we had the money.  A house next to the Rashbi! We didn’t understand it, but we knew there was something about this that was bigger than ourselves.”

They purchased the property from the Christian Arab, and slowly began renovations to make it livable.  They still hadn’t returned to Israel permanently, but went back and forth from Holland to check on construction progress.  At some point one of her sons lived in the unfinished house before moving elsewhere in Israel, as he had by then made aliyah.  Only a few years later did she realize how their important their lack of permanence would be in introducing their presence to wary Christian and Druze neighbors, who were suspicious about Jews moving to Peki’in.

The Story of Peki’in

Historically, Peki’in was a Jewish village that existed at the time of the Second Temple.  Six of the surviving twenty-four families of Kohanim (high priests) escaped to Peki’in from Jerusalem at the time of her destruction by the Romans.  Margalit Zinati, from my article “The Last Jew of Peki’in,” is the only remaining surviving descendant of those 2000 year old families who still lives in the village today. Eventually early Christians, Muslims, and Druze  came to live in Peki’in as well.  But the road was a rocky one for the Jews, and they were driven out more than once by angry mobs.

The Druze are a mysterious people.  They believe they are descendants of Yisro, the father-in-law of Moses.  Their religion is secretive, and little is known about it by outsiders.  There is no intermarriage allowed.  Once a Druze marries “out” he is no longer considered a part of his people.  Today there are Druze in northern Israel, Syria and Lebanon.  As part of their creed, they follow the laws of the land.  Hence, many Druze have served – – and died – – in the Israeli military on Israel’s behalf.  They too have been a persecuted people, and as such are suspicious of outsiders.  Because their religion and culture are so insular, they have little tolerance for outsiders who wish to “infiltrate” their living space.  So when Jews started trickling back to Peki’in, it was more than the Druze could accept.

With their renovations complete and their youngest child now an adult, the de Jongs decided the time was right to return permanently to Israel.  Their “second aliyah” was to their newly renovated home in Peki’in.  After the news spread that Jews had bought a home in Peki’in, about 30 Jews settled in the village – – Jews whose goal it was to Judaize Peki’in once again.

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Troubled Times

But the pioneer spirit of reclaiming Jewish history came to naught.  It all came crashing down, only a month after the de Jongs had moved permanently into their renovated home.  Many of the 30 Jewish pioneers did not understand Arab culture and an Eastern mentality, and did not realize the extreme importance the Arabs  attributed to codes of honor, respect, and the repercussions of losing face.  Nor did the Jews understand the fear the Druze had of losing the land they had lived on for centuries.

One night the de Jongs awoke to the sound of gunfire.  Suddenly there was shouting, yelling and cursing which could be heard echoing through the mountainside.  And then there were gangs, then mobs, and then flames.  “The entire village just . . . exploded,” Ruth said.

Mobs At Their Doorstep

Imagine the trauma and fear felt by the de Jongs, especially when their early life history is taken into consideration, as their house was surrounded by angry youth intent on violence.  The de Jongs were defenseless.  They had only large sticks, collected from the woodpile used for their fireplace, to protect themselves.  It was only due to their neighbor, who chased the mobs away and warned them not to touch the de Jong’s property, that they were unharmed.  Their car was burned to the ground. (It was replaced, only to once again be burned completely a few weeks later.)  The thirty other Jews were now too afraid to remain in Peki’in, and left their burning houses.  

“Police came to tell them that they could no longer protect us because of political reasons,” maintains Ruth.  The de Jongs were forced to return to Holland.  Six months later Abel and Ruth returned to Peki’in;  their house was intact.

Thereafter, laws passed by the local council made it illegal for property in Peki’in to be sold to anyone who is non-Druze, and that law still stands today.  Ever since then, the de Jongs have worked very hard to try to interpret the subtleties of cultural differences, and have cultivated amicable relationships with their immediate neighbors, both Christian and Druze.  One elder, Abu Sutki, became very close with Abel, saying he felt as close to him as a beloved brother.

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Eventually things calmed down.  Perhaps because they are elderly and Dutch and it’s just the two of them living in the house, the de Jongs are not perceived as much of a threat.  They maintain a cordial relationship with their Arab neighbors, and are sensitive to cultural and religious differences.  They are resigned to living isolated from other Jews, because they are strongly committed to maintaining the Rashbi’s cave, and feel it is their destiny to do so.

The Earth Gives Way

One morning Ruth and Abel were awakened by a horrible crashing sound.  She opened the door to her outside porch, and was startled to see . . . nothing!  Part of the side of their mountain had suddenly fallen away, and the house continued to groan.  They felt sure that the entire house they had restored so lovingly was in danger of immediate collapse.

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Experts and structural engineers were called in.  Because the house is precariously located, and surrounded by neighbors, there was no easy way for heavy construction equipment to access the house.  A very complex solution to support the structure was recommended, but it meant tearing up years and years worth of landscaping work, trees and bushes and pathways.  Instead, Ruth and Abel decided to tackle the challenge of repairing the structure themselves.  At the age of 67 and 72, together they mixed cement, created wooden forms and framework, and placed lots of iron rebar alongside their mountain.  Within only two months, they had created a 3-story cement retaining wall that is a true wonder!

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Although not officially trained in this capacity, Abel has tremendous talents for structural design and engineering, as well as implementation.  This is only one example of the de Jong’s incredible self-sufficiency, independence and determination to remain in the place they love. They view their upkeep of the Rashbi’s tomb as nothing less than holy work.

Artifacts

Ruth took me on a tour of the house.  Originally, a hundred years ago, the Druze in Peki’in were very poor, and their homes were constructed of mud and straw.  When many surrounding villages were abandoned during Israel’s War of Independence, the Druze of Peki’in retrieved the building blocks from the rubble of the richer neighboring towns.  When the de Jong’s house fell partially away, it was possible to see these layers of mud and straw and then stone blocks.

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She also showed me a niche that was used for pita baking, and another stall which housed goats.  In the old kitchen were utensils of copper and iron; on the wall was an antique Syrian scythe.

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There was also a huge storage closet, called by the Turkish “keet,” where the previous family of 10 children stowed their sleeping pallets every morning, and pulled them out every evening at bedtime.

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There were also the remains of a very old sledge, which had been used to separate grain and chaff; hand-woven baskets; and a round rattan disc that was used for kneading dough into pita and laffa.

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There were some amazing historical photos on the wall.  Once while she was browsing through some antique books while on a trip to Holland, Ruth found a very old travel journal about the Middle East.  She recognized one of the old sepia photos in the book:  it was none other than Margalit Zinati’s father, in old Peki’in! (She bought the book and brought it to Israel.)

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Abel used his blacksmithing talents to fix something for a Druze neighbor, and wouldn’t accept payment; his neighbor gave him an antique copper serving tray in exchange.

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The de Jongs continue to collect unusual artifacts and old pieces of farming equipment and cooking utensils used by indigenous cultures.

The neighbors also enjoy sampling the literal fruits of the de Jongs’ labor:  they grow figs, almonds, mulberries, herbs, and raise chickens who lay organic eggs.

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The Memorial:  Finding Peace

We continued walking along a lush, multilayered landscaped pathway. As we walked down narrow steps hand-built by Abel to the garden below, and finally to the cave of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, Ruth pointed out a young carob tree, with a small tag inscribed “Daniel.”  This, too, had a story.  Abel’s brother Daniel, who had never married, died a few years ago and was buried in Holland according to his wishes.  The de Jongs wished to create a memorial for him.  They planted the carob tree and placed a sign alongside it, inscribed with words about him.

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The next morning, Ruth came to the spot to water the tree and noticed that the words on the plaque were gone.  She couldn’t understand it, as there had been no rain to wash away the lettering.  So that afternoon, she painted the letters on the sign so they would be more permanent.

The following morning, she again came to water the tree, and once again the letters were gone. She was both puzzled and disturbed.  Deep in thought, she decided that it was Daniel’s way of telling them that he didn’t want the epitaph they had chosen.  She let her eyes wander to the plants next to the tree, where she noticed a paper label on the ground, face down.  She suddenly had a very powerful feeling that if she were to retrieve the label, her brother-in-law’s name would be on that label.  To reach it she had to climb over the low fence, where the tree and label sat.  When she picked up the label and turned it over, there was a picture of an Israeli flag with a Jewish star – – and the name “Daniel” printed on it!  The de Jongs felt this was a Divine message, and encased the label in a simple plastic tag and tied it to the young carob sapling, where it remains today.

Hopes, Dreams and Prayers

Ruth walked with me to the Rashbi cave, bending down here and there to pick up stray litter and to sweep away errant leaves.  At the mouth of the cave there was old wax from memorial candles and similar to the Kotel, a large collection of folded notes from many visitors, filled with prayers of hope and desperation, begging for salvation.  I asked her what she did with the notes when they became too numerous for the narrow rock shelf and crevices in which the notes were placed.

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“I don’t touch them, nor do I read them,” Ruth says.  “What’s interesting is that sometimes when people burn the candles, the intensity of the flames heats the rock shelf, and the papers either burn or dry up and disintegrate on their own.  Then the remnants are carried away by the wind, perhaps to the heavens.

“I think that’s fitting,” she concluded, ” . . . don’t you?”

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Government “Help”

As newbies to Israel, job hunting can be a bit of a challenge.  So my husband and I went to a job fair in Haifa sponsored by the Ministry of Aliyah and Absorption.  While this particular fair wasn’t so useful (it concentrated mostly on manufacturing jobs), we did meet with a representative from the Ministry who suggested we take advantage of free career counseling, free resume writing/translation, and recruiting with job leads.  My husband made an appointment for the following day in Karmiel.  Shortly after arriving he called.  “They just informed me that I don’t qualify,” he said.   (He was not discouraged.  In Israel, rules are meant to be broken and “no” never means “no.”  This is important to remember when you are feeling disheartened by Israeli bureaucracy, outdated policies and practices.)  In Israel, retirement is mandatory at age 67 for men (it’s 62 for women, but they have just changed the law to 64).  He was told that the only way to extend one’s work life as an employee is to strike out on one’s own and work as a freelancer or consultant.  My husband suggested that I go to Karmiel to meet with the Ministry job office since I’m 60 and still in the running for employment.

There I was greeted by a vivacious young woman who is a job counselor, and her counterpart, a dour, older Russian immigrant who is a psychologist.  The purpose of the psychologist was supposedly to assess the personality of the applicant, and to ensure that he is a viable and realistic candidate for employment.  The psychologist seemed to suffer from narcolepsy, as she practically fell asleep in front of her laptop.  The job counselor took one look at my resume and told me, “You don’t want to be an employee, you need to be a freelancer.”  I told her I was fine with that, but then she added, “We don’t help freelancers. That’s a different government job office.  But to get there, you will need a referral from the Ministry. ”  Because I didn’t fit into her framework, she told me, she also could not offer the free resume translation service.  Perhaps they would help me at the freelance job office.

So I got back into my car and went to the Ministry of Aliyah and Absorption.  I spoke to the same lady who recommended that I go to the first employment office.  She called the freelancer job office who said that no, they couldn’t offer to translate my resume because I wasn’t a resident of Karmiel, even though Karmiel is the closest city to where I live and the only place near me that has a government office of this nature.

The Ministry of Aliyah and Absorption lady said she was very sorry, but she couldn’t help me.  Her hands were tied, since the various agencies were funded in a very specific manner and if I was outside the perimeter, the budget would not allow them to make an exception.

I remarked – – while smiling and being totally non-threatening, calm and polite, yet firmly and with conviction – – that it seemed ironic that the entire purpose of the Ministry of Aliyah and Absorption was to help new immigrants and returning residents, yet there were stumbling blocks created by the very same office that were counterproductive.  I told her I wasn’t really helpless, that I am a resourceful person and can do pretty well on my own, but that I lacked certain tools because I was new and just needed to know what those tools were so I could access them on my own.  I told her about my job plan and how I had done lots of cold calling and reached out to companies and academic institutions, sparking interest in my services.  I could tell she was impressed and immediately her tone changed.

“I really would love to help you with your resume myself,” she said sincerely, “but I just don’t know any English.”

Aha!  I had my “in.”  I quickly scanned the hall through the open door, making note that there was no one else waiting for assistance.

“That’s so kind of you to offer to help,” I said politely, “because now we can sit and work on my resume together!”

She was trapped.

A very kind friend had offered to translate my resume into Hebrew, but there were some tricky spots that needed a bit of polishing.  So together the Ministry of Aliyah and Absorption lady and I sat over the resume, and to her credit, she did help me a lot.  When she finished editing it, she told me about a free online resume service whereby you send them the text, and they produce a finished copy with select fonts and formatting.

I thanked her profusely and went on my way, stopping to say hi to a friend who works in the same office building.

“She was nice to you?” my friend said, shocked and surprised.  Apparently this woman has quite the reputation of being a short-tempered, burned out bureaucrat.  I never saw that side of her, she even encouraged me to stop in to say hello the next time I’m in town.

I still have to go the the government office that counsels freelancers and provides them with job leads, but that can wait for another day.  Fortunately do to extensive and ceaseless networking I have some promising possibilities within my field.

I have an Israeli friend who is rather anti-religious and barely agnostic.  “The only reason I believe in God,” he tells me, “is that the very existence of Israel is a miracle.  With all the bureaucratic foibles, it’s amazing that anything gets accomplished. How else, if not for God?”

Once we figured out how to navigate the system, my husband found work immediately. (Hint #1: never ever send a resume as a pdf; it will automatically be tossed.  They want CVs sent as a Word document.  Hint #2: in the field of hi-tech, the preferred language for your CV is English, not Hebrew. We wasted countless hours working on bilingual resumes).  Although the naysayers said my husband would never find work at age 69 in Israel, even though he was an experienced and expert programmer and systems engineer, within a week he had 3 interviews and 3 job offers in the private sector.  It turns out that Israel is experiencing a severe shortage of people qualified to work in the hi-tech industry.  While the pay isn’t what it was in the States, the benefits are attractive (including a new leased Kia Niro hybrid car and free gas in a country where gas is nearly $8/gallon) and the work is technically exciting.  My husband is actually happier working in Israel than he was working in America.  Who would’ve believed that now, at age 70, he’s doing his part contributing to the Start-Up Nation!

It took a several months and a long bout of disappointing, infuriating and absurd interviews that were worthy of a soap opera, but I did finally find work as a freelance writer and editor, and at a decent wage, too.  I’m currently working with a college in the North translating scientific research from Hebrew to English and writing popular science articles for their donor newsletters. My triumph wasn’t thanks to any referrals by government employment service agencies.  I simply picked up the phone and cold-called my current gig, and the job came seemingly out of nowhere (thank you, God).

I wish this was worthy of congratulations, but I’m now over my head registering with government offices as an independent contractor. I’ve hired an accountant to help me slog through the paperwork and long lines at government offices, including the tax authority and social security (bituach leumi).  The accountant has already warned me that I will likely be subject to an audit and they’ll want to know everything, including a list of the appliances I own (which make no sense).

It may actually cost me to work, but oh! the stories I can tell…

Health Care in Israel

Several months ago, shortly after we made aliyah, my husband slipped and fell very hard on his shoulder. A visit to Terem (the urgent care clinics whose concept in Israel was founded by the brilliant Dr. David Appelbaum hy”d, who was killed along with his daughter Nava on the eve of her wedding in a terrorist attack in Jerusalem) presented no evidence of a fracture, so he was sent home to rest it in a sling. A few months went by and it didn’t get any better; my husband was in such pain that it was affecting his ability to sleep at night.

Unfortunately for us, we still did not have decent health insurance. Although all new immigrants to Israel are given membership to the health care system in Israel the second they step off the plane, we were not considered “new immigrants” because we had lived in Israel in the 1980s. We were “returning Israelis” and the rules are quite different. There is a six month waiting period before you are accepted into the Israeli health care system, and meanwhile you must get private health insurance which in our case turned out to be very poor. It did not include any pre-existing conditions, it was expensive, and the doctors who would take the insurance were non-existent outside of the major cities of Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, and Haifa.

The “six-month rule” was instituted because too many Israelis were spending the most productive years of their lives living and making money in the US, Canada, and Berlin, and only returning to Israel at retirement age when their health care needs were greatest. The government was resentful that these returning Israelis had not been paying into the National Health Care system (called Bituach Leumi) for decades, and now they were returning and bankrupting the system with their medical needs. Hence the six-month rule.

Thankfully, the six months passed quickly for us mostly without incident (the xray was covered by the private insurance as an emergency condition), and at the first available opportunity we signed up with one of Israel’s kupot holim (health funds).

Which fund to choose? This is a valid question because they all have subtle differences. For instance, some include certain medicines in their “health basket” and others include yet a different set of medicines. So if you have a chronic illness requiring expensive medication, it behooves you to check just which specific medicines are included in the health basket of the kupat holim of your choice. Which kupat holim has the best doctors? The clinic with the most convenient hours? The ease in making appointments? How is their hospital network? Choice of specialists? How far do you have to travel? The latter question is especially important if you do not live in a major city like Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Haifa or Beer Sheva.  Where we live, there is a small clinic right in the yishuv (village) but they’re affiliated with the Clalit health fund. We wanted to join Kupat Holim Maccabi, whose clinic is 5 miles up the road – – fortunately, we have a car as buses run only every 90 minutes.

While one health fund might be great in one location, the same fund might not be so great in another. So it’s important to determine the quality of care available in your particular location.  In our case, the tiny Kupat Holim Maccabi clinic for the Misgav region where we live in the Galilee happens to have excellent doctors. The family doctor has won all kinds of awards for her excellent care. Specialists such as an orthopedic surgeon, physical therapist, and ophthalmologist visit the clinic weekly.  I needed to travel to Karmiel or the outskirts of Haifa for other specialists and services such as MRIs, CT scans or ultrasound, but this is only a 20 – 30  minute car ride. But this brings me to mention a very important consideration when you are deciding where to live in Israel: how far will you be from excellent medical services? Will you have a car or rely on buses?  If you are retirement age or, G-d forbid, you have a serious illness that requires highly specialized treatment, frequent therapies or monitoring, it is no fun to travel hours when you are feeling your sickest to seek care, which could be the case if you live in the Golan, for example.

Each kupat holim has 3 levels of care to choose from. The cost difference is not huge between the lowest priced plan and the most expensive, so we opted for the most expensive plan, which offered additional benefits. The cost of our health insurance, called Maccabi Sheli, is approximately $145 monthly for the two of us together. Yes, you heard right: Around $70 per person for the top-level plan. To be fair, it doesn’t include everything. The particular diabetes medication that my husband takes is not part of the health basket but it’s still less than $30 per month. An ultrasound recently cost me $10. But these prices are still way cheaper than what we paid in the US, even with insurance.

For the few things the kupat holim plan doesn’t cover, you can buy private “supplemental” insurance that usually pays in 100% as a secondary insurance. This is not cheap but still way cheaper than insurance in the US.  This “private” insurance will also pay for seeing physicians not in your health plan, as well as surgeries and second opinions abroad.  Finally, there is long-term nursing care insurance,  called “siyudi,” which works somewhat differently in Israel than the US.

The kupot holim do offer long-term nursing care insurance, but it is via a private health care insurance agency. The cost depends on what age you sign up for it. At our age (I’m 60 and my husband is 69) it is more expensive than if you sign up at age 40. The “gotcha” is that it provides nursing care at a set limit (in our case, around 3500 NIS per month per person) for a maximum of 5 years. Statistically, they reason that after 5 years requiring full-time care, you will likely be dead. Currently full-time nursing care in one’s home costs about 7500 – 10K NIS monthly (about $2500 – $3500 per month in dollars) in Israel. It is also advisable to purchase supplemental long-term care insurance privately to make up for the difference, as well as the possibility for insuring longer than 5 years. Our insurance agent tried to dissuade us from getting insurance beyond the 5 year limit as a waste of our hard-earned money, but we explained to him that since we live in Israel without family, we are literally on our own with no relatives to take care of us, so we will need to rely on professional care. In Israel, families are very close and usually care is shared by family members, so few opt for extended or extensive long-term care insurance. The supplemental long-term care insurance is not cheap by any means, but it is a fraction of what we would have paid in the US, plus the cost of private nursing care is also cheaper than the US. Caveat:  it may be difficult to purchase these types of insurance in Israel after age 70 so it’s important to take care of this while you can.

But back to my husband. We made an initial appointment with our new family doctor, who proved to be every bit as wonderful as we were told. She told my husband that he was in luck, the orthopedic surgeon who comes to our local clinic on Thursdays happens to be a shoulder specialist. My husband was able to get an appointment with him for that very afternoon.

The doctor felt my husband would probably require surgery due to his rotator cuff injury, but without an MRI it would be impossible to diagnose accurately. He suggested my husband get a cortisone shot to temporarily relieve his pain and once again we were exposed to differences between the Israeli and US health care system. In America, the doctor would have given my husband the shot right then in the office and that would’ve been that. In Israel, doctors have zero supplies in their clinic offices. My husband was given a prescription for the cortisone, but there is no pharmacy at the clinic. So we had to travel 20 minutes to the city of Karmiel to fill the prescription for the injection, and then bring the vial back to the clinic so the doctor could give him the shot. Well that’s fine – – except the doctor only comes once a week to our local clinic, and the following week was a Jewish holiday and the clinic would be closed. So like speed demons we raced from the pharmacy in Karmiel back to the local clinic barely making it before the doctor had to leave for the day.

The shot provided tremendous temporary relief from pain. But the MRI revealed the damage was bad enough that physical therapy and rest would not be enough to fix my husband’s shoulder. The doctor warned us that at his advanced age, my husband may not heal well since the ligaments and tendons are no longer supple, so he couldn’t guarantee the surgery would be successful. My husband replied that even if he didn’t regain full range of motion for his arm, the surgery was worth the risk if there was a chance of relieving his chronic pain. Thank G-d, my husband is in good basic health and very physically active, so we felt he had a good chance of success.

The surgery was scheduled for a couple of weeks later. And that’s another thing: one usually hears that with socialized medicine, “elective” surgeries take months or years to schedule. This was certainly not true in our case!

We had the option of not using this doctor, and going with a “private” doctor at our own expense. But we liked this doctor; he did these surgeries regularly and seemed competent enough.

Which brings me to another point: here in Israel your perception of Israel as a land of Nice Jewish Doctors might be challenged, especially if you don’t live in a major city. Just like in America, the “best” doctors are rarely attracted to rural areas, since the pay and the equipment and facilities are less than what’s available in major cities. In rural areas you are much more likely to get doctors trained in Eastern Europe and who may not speak English, or Arab doctors.

In fact, my endocrinologist is an Arab, and couldn’t be nicer or more qualified – – I’m very happy. He’s polite, friendly, caring, knowledgable and helpful. In my husband’s case, the orthopedic surgeon was Russian.

I know many American olim shy away from Russian doctors in Israel. Mostly it’s a personality thing. In America, doctors usually discuss various treatment options with you. Russian doctors tend to be gruff, matter-of-fact, intimidating and have a “my way or the highway” attitude. This is the stereotype, anyway. It can also be frightening when you are a new immigrant facing a medical procedure and your doctor doesn’t speak English and your Hebrew is weak; it’s important to understand what is being done to you and the particulars of your care.

But while my husband’s doctor was rather forceful and had a strong personality, he truly seemed to know what he was doing. We liked him right away. And I reasoned that in Russia, where anti-Semitic policies implement severe quotas on the number of Jews accepted to medical schools, only the very best of the best Jewish students become doctors. He was going to do the entire operation arthoscopically, so there would be no large gaping incision.  We felt we were in good hands, and truly in G-d’s hands.

All the way through, communication was excellent. Israel is very proficient with Electronic Health Records, and we frequently got text messages to remind of us appointments. Setting appointments was easy online. If we couldn’t handle things due to limited Hebrew, there were always “live” people to speak to who went out of their way to be patient in setting things up for us or to explain things. There were always follow-up calls checking up on us. Doctors and institutions had no trouble accessing our EHRs no matter where we were (caveat: there is no privacy in Israel!).

So on Thursday after Chanuka my husband had his surgery in a small hospital just outside of Haifa.

And while the care was great and the surgery seemingly successful, once again, there were some things that were very different from the US.

For one thing, the hospital was located in a huge shopping mall. Seriously. When we arrived at 6 a.m, we saw two male patients window shopping (the stores were closed at that early hour), walking around the mall pushing their IVs with one hand and clutching their backless hospital gowns with the other hand. The hospital was on the 3rd floor; Children’s Place and other typical clothing, jewelry and kitchen stores as well as a Cineplex and food court were on floors 1 – 2.

Another thing:  when we checked in, no mention was made of cost.  In the States it seems like it’s always about money.  But as I sat in the intake chair, I started getting really nervous about how we’d pay for everything even with insurance (our supplemental private insurance wouldn’t pay for this surgery since the original injury occurred before we had this insurance, and it was considered a “pre-existing condition”), but realized at this late stage in the game it was too late to worry about it.

Even for what was a “minor” surgery there are risks, and I can’t say I wasn’t worried.  Usually both patient and spouse utter endearments to one another as the patient is wheeled away.  But instead of “I love you!” my husband, ever the geek, said, “My password is . . . ”

While I was waiting for the surgery to be over, I struck up a conversation with the person sitting next to me (Israelis always make conversation with strangers; I think it is because ultimately we feel like one big family). I asked her how I might calculate costs.  She didn’t know, but just then a cleaning lady – an older woman pushing a hospital cart that contained a bucket of water and a sponja stick (mop) – overheard me and said, “Excuse me. . . um, what health plan are you associated with?” and proceeded to tell me the intricacies of how the system worked.  Yes – – the cleaning lady.  She also wished a speedy recovery on my husband’s behalf- but so did everyone wish us and everyone else the same, Jewish and Arab alike.

My husband was wheeled out of the operating room and I met him in the recovery room.  Of course he has zero recollection of our conversation but it was truly YouTube-worthy.  Although in normal circumstances he is far from fluent in Hebrew, under anesthetic he suddenly became 100% fluent in Hebrew, speaking  quickly with a perfect Israeli accent.  I addressed him in English but he looked at me as if he couldn’t understand.  I repeated what I has said in Hebrew and he answered me in Hebrew, perfectly.  In fact he was rambling on and on in perfect Hebrew.  He was unable to speak English at all.  As the anesthetic wore off, his perfect Hebrew disappeared and English once again ruled.  I guess it means his neshama (soul) is Israeli!

How bad can things be when the first thing you’re allowed to eat after surgery is kosher chocolate pudding, provided by the hospital?  The surgeon told us the damage was more extensive than the MRI had indicated, and that it was a complete tear.  The entire operation was done arthroscopically so there were only five small staples and there would be no external scarring.

My husband was supposed to stay overnight, but it was clear he was doing better than expected, and they gave us the option of leaving at the end of the day.

This is where things got exciting.

It so happened that we had guests staying at our rental apartment who were visiting  from America.  I will call them the “Rosens” – – not their real name.  Because the previous nights they’d been with us they were up till around 11:30 pm, we didn’t bother telling them we had decided at the last minute to come home the same evening as the surgery.

We arrived home around 10 pm. Unfortunately, our front door was locked and our guests had put the key in the door, so our key couldn’t open it.  After I tried phoning and texting them I realized their phone was turned off.  They had a busy day touring and were exhausted from a general lack of sleep, so they decided to turn in early.  They didn’t hear me knocking.  So there we were, my husband only hours out of surgery, on the doorstep of our rental apartment in pitch darkness, with no way to get in.

(I seem to have a talent for getting locked out of houses.  Perhaps this will remind you of a similar incident I wrote about in this blog that happened to me during Pesach, which you can read about here.)

All of my windows were bolted, but I suddenly remembered that there was one window I had forgotten to lock – – the kitchen window.  Leaving my husband resting on the porch, I pushed a garbage can next to the window and climbed on top of the can.  With a little prying I was able to slide the window open.  The window was next to the kitchen counter, which happened to be crowded with drying dishes and food supplies.  I am not a small person, and this was like watching an elephant in a tutu.  Unfortunately, not a graceful elephant.  So in the process of climbing onto the counter, and because it was pitch dark, I managed to knock over a bottle of wine and a bottle of olive oil that were on the counter.

The noise woke up my guests.  I decided to stop and be very quiet, since I felt bad I had disturbed their sleep and perhaps they would go back to sleep.  This idea was nice in theory but the elephant in me knocked over a container of spices and now they were up for real.

Well, they were awake, but not up.  Actually, they were quaking in their beds.  They knew we were not supposed to be home that night, so it couldn’t be us.  They were convinced they were hearing Arabs trying to break into our home to commit a terrorist attack.

I finally landed with a thud from the counter to the kitchen floor.  Again, I tried to be quiet, but the elephant in me ran into the broom and it knocked loudly to the floor.  I ran to the front door to unlock it for my husband, waiting patiently but weakly outside on the porch.  Suddenly my guests’ bedroom door opened slowly and ‘Mr. Rosen” peeked out.

“Hi and surprise!” I said.  “It turned out we were able to be discharged early, so we came home!  But you left the key in the inside of front door so I couldn’t unlock it so I had to break in!”

“Mr. Rosen” looked pale.

“Yeah, we were in bed when we heard you,” he said.  “We weren’t sure what to do.  My wife finally convinced me to investigate.  I was sure when I opened this door I was going to hear “Allahu Akhbar!””

I actually felt really badly that I’d caused them such a fright; but I knew this would be something that we’d laugh over someday . . .  if the “Rosens”  didn’t want to kill me first.

Postscript:  the surgeon called us at home to make sure my husband felt okay, and offered kind words of encouragement.  We also got called several times by the hospital and the kupa, just to see how he was feeling.  Physical therapy was arranged and the first session was 5 days after the operation with a wonderful PT who couldn’t believe how much range of motion my husband had already.  His recovery is stellar, thank G-d, surpassing all estimates (the doctor said up to 3 months before my husband could go back to work; he is already (cautiously) doing a few hours’ work at his computer at home less than a week after the surgery).

As to the bill?  The surgery, hospital stay, and subsequent physical therapy are free.

We are so blessed to be in Israel, both in sickness and in health.

 

The Best Things in Life are Free

We knew it was going to be 18 months to 2 years before we’d be moving into the house we are building, due to permits bureaucracy and construction process in Israel being so slow.  With that in mind, and the realization that most of our American furniture was either too large for the smaller room sizes in Israel; that the furniture we had was worn out after 40 years of heavy family use; and that much of our furniture was collected over the years from yard sales and dumpster diving and the shipping costs were too high to justify moving what was essentially junk:  we knew we’d be buying our furniture in Israel.  We also didn’t know what type of apartment we’d be renting while waiting for the house to be built.  So the only furniture we ended up bringing was an antique armoire I wasn’t successful in selling beforehand;  a well-worn futon couch for last-minute guests; a circa 1955 dresser that we had been given many years ago for free; and the one piece of furniture I really wanted to bring all along:  a hand-made pine dining room table we had gotten at a farmer’s yard sale in Maine for $75.  The table was beautifully made but the farmer’s Labrador retriever puppy had chewed the corners, leaving lots of teeth marks; plus their kids hadn’t been careful about putting hot things or cups of liquid on the wood, so it was pretty scratched, stained and banged up.  I figured that only added to its charm and the price was right.  Unfortunately, however, when we stacked hundreds of pounds of boxes on the sturdy table top when we shipped our stuff to Israel, the soft pine wood could only take so much weight, and the cartons of books left deep gouges from the impressions of the boxes on the tabletop.  Our table no longer looked so charming by the time it was delivered to us in Israel.

Meanwhile I hadn’t brought my bedroom set or mattress from America.  We bought a $40 blow-up air mattress on sale from Target a week before our flight, and slipped it easily into our suitcase.  We figured we’d buy a real mattress the first week after we arrived, and the air mattress would tide us over until then. It has:  it’s so comfortable my husband is in no rush to replace it, 3 1/2 months later. We are still sleeping on it.

But one day while browsing on a Facebook group that is dedicated to the sale of second-hand furniture in the Karmiel region, I noticed a picture of a bed being given away that looked to be in good condition.  I contacted the owner who explained the bed was 17 years old but in great shape.  They were moving that week to a new house and wanted to get a new bed.  So without telling my husband, I hopped into the car and drove to Karmiel to take a look.

It was a very sturdy platform bed, and with its built-in lift mechanism, there was a huge amount of storage that one could easily access under the mattress.  It looked like the frame’s side and head rails would come apart easily enough with a screwdriver, so I told the owner we’d take it.  My one worry was the mattress support, which was a single piece of mason board.  There was no way it would fit in our car.

When I got home I told my husband that we needed to go into Karmiel the next day, because – surprise! –  we were now the owners of a real bed and that we needed to take it apart before we could bring it home (thankfully my long-suffering husband is an awfully good sport).  But I knew I’d need to get a mover for that mason board, so I posted on one of the gazillion WhatsApp groups in our village to see if anyone could recommend a mover.

I instantly got a reply:  someone knew someone who was a carpenter in Karmiel; surely he’d have a truck.  I contacted the fellow and he was a bit reluctant, since he’s a carpenter by trade and not a mover, but yes, he had a large van and for a pretty sum he was willing to deliver the mason board.  The carpenter was an oleh chadash (new immigrant to Israel) who made aliyah with his wife and kids eighteen months ago.  He was a third-generation carpenter and woodworker from North Carolina. and his specialty was custom kitchen cabinets.   Hmm, I thought.  It would certainly pay to get an estimate for a kitchen for my new house while he’s around.

That’s when I remembered my beat-up table.  I asked him if he had a belt sander, and if so, would be interested in sanding down the table top when he delivers the bed?  So for another pretty sum we arranged that he’d do just that.

When my husband and I got to the owner’s house the next day, we tried to take apart the bed, but it wasn’t as simple as I originally thought.  It turned out the base was one big piece that you couldn’t unscrew, so we took the headboard and side rails and left the rest, telling the owner that the carpenter would be there the next day, assisted by my husband, to move the rest of the bed out of her house.

The next day my husband met the carpenter in Karmiel.  No one was home, but the landlady let us in to the apartment with her extra key and so they loaded the truck.  The bed was delivered and the carpenter spent two full hours outside our apartment on a very hot day sanding down the table top.  It looked like a new table when he was done and I was thrilled.  I wanted to put oil on it to make the wood more resistant to stains, but wasn’t sure where to buy it, so I asked the carpenter.  He suggested a store in Kiryat Bialik, a suburb of Haifa.  He wasn’t sure of the name, but he knew the name of another store that was nearby.

Re-assembling the bed would have to wait.

The next day I plugged the name of the store into Waze, but Waze didn’t recognize it.  I found an alternate spelling and it took me to a mall.  There was no such store in the mall, so I called the carpenter.  He told me the store was near a supermarket, so I found the supermarket, but not the store I needed for the oil.  I called the carpenter back and he tried to explain how to get to the store.  I finally found the store it was supposedly near, and that store owner directed me to another store and then the second store directed me to a third store.  Eureka!  It was a wholesale factory that produced finishes for wood products.

The secretary couldn’t believe I wanted shemen pishtan (linseed oil).  So she called a young man from the warehouse to the reception area.  He was sure I wanted a water-based polyurethane.  But when I repeated that I wanted linseed oil, he called his father, who came from the back of the warehouse.  The father thought I wanted an oil-based polyurethane.  When I repeated that I wanted linseed oil, he called his father from the warehouse.  The grandfather proudly explained that he was the founder of their varnish “empire,”  and it now supported and was staffed by 3 generations of his family.  He felt it curious that I wanted such an “old-fashioned” finish for my table, and wanted to know where I was from.  America!!!  He couldn’t believe it!  He was so proud that someone would come all the way from America to his varnish factory in the decrepit industrial zone of Kiryat Bialik just to buy his products!  He was beaming; he was kvelling.  His grandchildren were amazed.  Now, he insisted, I had to sit and tell him why I wanted linseed oil for my table, and tell him why I wanted to make aliyah; am I married? Do I have children? Why did I want to live in Moreshet? But no, he repeated, I didn’t want linseed oil, I wanted something called “dek” which is a blend of linseed oil and pine resin which would create a hard finish on  the surface of my table. He insisted on calling the carpenter because surely I was mistaken and the carpenter would convince me to get dek , if not the polyurethane.  The carpenter told him to give me linseed oil.  He glanced my way.

No, I insisted, I didn’t want dek, I wanted linseed oil.  The factory owner thought we Americans were a strange and confused lot.

“Fine!” he sighed dramatically, and told his secretary to ring it up.  “How much?” I asked.  He told me a price but his secretary quickly interrupted.  “Give her a 20 shekel discount,” she insisted.  “How often do you get customers from America?!?!

Light-headed from the combination of my newfound celebrity status and the fumes from the varnish factory, I made my way home. I got a call from the original owner of the bed.

“You forgot the mason board!” she said.  “It’s sitting here in my living room waiting for you to take it away!”  The well-meaning lady had moved the mason board from the bedroom, away from the bed, into the living room; and my husband hadn’t thought to look for it when they moved the bed out of the owner’s bedroom.

The carpenter and his truck were long gone, his pocket newly cushioned by a check written by my husband for services rendered.  I sighed.  I needed that mason board, but I had no interest in paying twice to get it moved.  With a friend, I  made my way to Karmiel and put the mason board on the roof of the car, tying it down with some rope I happened to have in the car.  I felt like a Girl Scout, prepared and capable! And of course I said a little prayer, so it wouldn’t fly off the roof of the car while driving on the twisty mountain highway that would take me home.

How ironic, I thought.  The very reason we originally hired the carpenter was to move only the mason board to our house.  In the process, we got a bed, our table was refinished, I had an adventure in an industrial zone in the middle of nowhere.  The mover-who-is-really-a-carpenter  is now giving me estimates for kitchen cabinets for our new house, and ironically, in the end, I moved the mason board on my own, anyway!