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Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Sweet Exchange Bina 2009

Sweet Exchange

Debbie Shapiro

I hate, absolutely hate, dealing with bureaucracy. I cringe at the thought of walking into a government office to be sent from one stone-faced official to another, and then — finally, at the end of two and a half hours of waiting in lines and sitting at desks, impatiently counting the seconds while the clerk finishes explaining to some anonymous person on the other end of the phone the pros and cons of making lasagna for supper — to be told to return in three days time, because that's when the one official capable of dealing with my problem returns from a weeklong conference about efficiency in the workplace.

That explains our hefty Bituach Leumi (Israel's National Insurance) bill. Over the years, whenever Bituach Leumi sent us their annual bill, instead of taking the bus to the nearest post office and standing in line for twenty minutes or so to pay it, I would throw it into the nearest circular bin and forget about it. Then, several months later, we would receive another letter from Bituach Leumi stating that the money we owed them would be debited from our monthly children's allowance. Certainly a lot easier than wasting a morning dealing with the postal clerks!

When our youngest turned eighteen and we stopped receiving Bituach Leumi's monthly children's allowance, I continued ignoring our Bituach Leumi bill — until yesterday. That's because yesterday, Bituach Leumi sent us a letter informing us that our bank account was locked until we paid the two thousand, three hundred shekel due to them.

I immediately phoned the Bituach Leumi office and tried to pay the debt with our credit card. But since our bank account was locked, we could not use our credit card. There was no choice. I'd have to go down to the office to deal with those heartless, stone-faced bureaucrats the following morning. Ugh!

The moment I opened my eyes, I knew that the day would be a scorcher. My suspicions were confirmed when, over toast and coffee, my husband brightly informing me that the weather report predicted higher than normal temperatures, which, for Jerusalem in August, is HOT. As I walked along the narrow, path-like roads that lead from the Bukharim neighborhood through the Russian Compound to the Bituach Leumi office in the center of town, the sun's glare brought tears to my eyes. I was hot, sticky, miserable and angry — angry at myself for neglecting to pay the bill; angry at Bituach Leumi for sending us such a threatening letter without advanced warning (Okay, during the last three months they had sent us several letters informing us that our debt must be paid immediately, but they could have warned us before locking our bank account); angry at the sun for glaring into my eyes. Even the streets seemed out to get me. There was construction everywhere, forcing me to make half a dozen detours before reaching my destination.

The entrance guard directed me to the long line in front of the information desk, to receive an all-important number. When my turn finally came, the woman at the desk took one look at me, said, "Excuse me," and walked away. I could see this was not going to be an easy morning. Three minutes later, another woman sat down at the information desk, handed me a number and gestured for me to enter the adjacent room.

The room was crowded with men and women reading books, talking on cell phones and staring into space. I looked for an empty chair and silently berated myself for not bringing something to read. But before I even had a chance to sit down, my number was called.

I handed the threatening letter to the woman at the desk. She silently read it and frowned. In utter silence, she typed our details into the computer and examined the computer screen. Her frown deepened. I was sure that she would start scolding me for being so irresponsible. Instead, she examined me from head to toe. "Your husband learns in yeshiva?" she asked. But it was more of a statement than a question.

I nodded my head. I was positive that she was about to use this as an excuse to accuse all religious Jews of being irresponsible people who conveniently forget to pay their bills.

Instead, she smiled warmly said, "With such a large family, I'm sure that money's tight. So before I do anything, let me take off all the interest and penalties that you've accrued over the years." A few minutes later she stifled a chuckle as she announced, "After I took off all the interest and penalties, you're left with a bill of just thirty-nine shekel! "

"You're kidding!" I shook my head in disbelief.

"No. It's exactly thirty-nine shekel."

"Let me run to the bakery across the street and buy us some cake and coffee. I can splurge! After all, I just earned over two thousand shekel!" If I wasn’t in such a public place I would have grabbed the clerk and danced started dancing with her.

"Thanks, but no thanks," she giggled. "I'm on a diet."

"And who isn't?" I retorted.

Armed with a few papers, I waltzed my way to the cashier to pay my bill — in cash! As I left the office, I felt the sun's golden rays tickling the back of my neck. The day was splendid. Nothing is as wonderful as Jerusalem in the summer — the colorful crowds of people rushing through the streets; the tiny daffodils bravely pushing their way through the cracks in the worn Jerusalem stone to seek the sunlight; the construction sites aimed at creating a modern transit system that will make my life easier, b'ezras Hashem; the warm nods of recognition and smiles from people I barely know. Walking through the Bukharim shuk, I bought myself an ice cream cone, sat on a bench and watched a group of children play. I savored every bite.

A fellow writer once told me that good writers paint a picture that is so clear that it does not need clarification. "Never preach," she said. "The moral of the story should be obvious" — so obvious you can taste it, like an ice cream cone on a hot summer day.

I couldn’t agree more.

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