Or at least trying to...

By Robert Sarner, Jewish Bulletin of Northern California, July 17, 1998

JERUSALEM - Like many Jerusalemites, I depend on buses to get around the city. No problem there - as long as my bus isn't targeted by Palestinian terrorists and blown to smithereens. The trouble begins when I have go to some part of town that I've never traveled to before by bus.

For the life of me, I can't figure out how the local transit authority deems it unnecessary to post maps of its bus lines at bus stops. Even more puzzling is that the buses themselves give no hint of where they're heading. There's no writing on the outside of the vehicle - apart from a number - to indicate its route.

Inside the bus, the mystery persists. No sign, no map, no itinerary, no nothing. Chalk it up to yet another aspect of life in the Promised Land that escapes me.

Israel, of course, has no monopoly on such enigmas. But as an immigrant, you're especially prone to such blind spots. For all my attempts at making sense of various idiosyncrasies in my adopted home, some things simply defy easy understanding. It's just the way it is. It was true during the 12 years I lived in France after growing up in Canada, and it's been no less so in Israel.

Since moving here several years ago, I have discovered much about this country. However, based on my continuing bewilderment at the following phenomena, I obviously still have a lot more to learn:

  • Israeli nature - If ever there was a place in need of protecting its environment, it's Israel. Yet strangely, in a country so tiny, so strapped for green space and natural resources, Israelis show a remarkable disregard for recycling or other ecological concerns.

  • Real Money: All salaries in Israel are in shekels, yet all prices for homes and apartment for sale or for rent are in U.S. dollars.

  • Roads of sorrow - One person killed in a terrorist attack and the country is aghast. But the death of 530 people in traffic fatalities in 1997, many the fault of psychotic Israeli drivers, inexplicably fails to move the government to finally do something revolutionary - like deploy enough traffic police with instructions to actually enforce traffic laws.

  • The Plight of The Non-Orthodox: If ever there were a place where an alternative to Orthodox Judaism would seem attractive, it's Israel. Judging by the failure of the Reform and Conservative movements to reach the wider Israeli public, however, it's not.

  • Big Talkers: Like a broken record, Netanyahu's coalition partners repeatedly threaten to leave his fragile government. They never do, even when the cabinet doesn't yield to their pressure. Every time they vow to bolt, there's a great sound and fury in the media, although none of the coalition parties has an interest in toppling the government.

  • Out On a Date: For some events, the date is determined by the Hebrew calendar. For others, the secular calendar is used.

  • Delivery Man Blues: In many Israeli cities, street signs seem to be a luxury item. Making matters worse, many buildings don't have signs with street numbers, and for those that do, the numbers often are invisible from the road.

  • Loose lips - Every other Israeli seems to have a cell phone permanently glued to his or her hand. Who are these people speaking to all the time and why do they think everybody around them is interested in hearing their high-priced, one-sided conversations?

  • Saturday Night Fever: With the end of Shabbat, Israelis pack the country's shopping centres. You can't move for the crowds and can't hear for the deafening noise, but still the hoards keep coming back week after week.

  • Placing Bibi - What is Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's real stance on the peace process, and on many other issues for that matter? Beats me. Even after more than two years in office, no one seems to know for sure. Does he?

  • On track - For decades, everyone - including Knesset members of every political persuasion -- has paid lip service to the need for a modern national train system. Despite all the talk, little has been done while the need has only grown. Have you ever tried taking the train between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv?

  • Sour notes - Eurovision, the annual song competition (including contestants from Israel), never fails to produce one of the kitschiest, most boring entertainment events of the year, and yet always commands huge interest in Israel. Equally baffling is how transsexual pop singer Dana International was chosen to represent Israel at this year's Eurovision?

  • Brand loyalty - For years, Pepsi refused to sell its products in Israel in acquiescence to the Arab boycott. In 1992, Pepsi decided to market its products in Israel to compete with Coca-Cola, which never buckled under Arab pressure. Sure enough, since then many Israelis buy Pepsi instead of Coke.

  • Calling Perry Mason - Former Interior Minister and Shas Party leader Rabbi Aryeh Deri has been on trial for fraud for more than three years during which 150 witnesses have testified -- and the thing is not over yet, for reasons unbeknownst to mere mortals. One thing is clear: being under indictment for a multitude of alleged infractions hasn't stopped Deri from becoming one of the country's most powerful politicians.

  • Can't be bothered - Articles in the Israeli media over the past year detailed the presence of hundreds of Nazi war criminals living undisturbed for decades in Canada. Nevertheless, last winter in response to a request from the Wiesenthal Center, Israel's Justice Minister couldn't be bothered to lodge an official complaint with Ottawa, saying the matter was of little priority.

  • Around Again: While most of the Western world recycles an increasing amount of its garbage, Israel recycles less than five percent. This despite the acute lack of land (for dumping) and the damage to valuable aquifer water resources by current trash disposal.

  • Simple economics - Salaries in Israel are much lower than in the United States. Housing prices here are much, much higher than in America. Yet the percentage of homeowners in Israel is much higher than in the US. Go figure.

  • Capital Gains? In 1991, Jerusalem built a new soccer stadium seating12,000 people, with parking facilities for less than 300 cars. As National League games are on Saturdays when there is no public transportation, the number of fans arriving by car is even greater. The result: the adjacent neighborhood of Malha is virtually barricaded in by thousands of illegally-parked cars, which police never ticket. Adding to the misery, this year the municipality spent $10 million (US) to increase the stadium's seating capacity without expanding the already inadequate parking facilities.

  • Communication for the Nation: In much of the world, Jews are leaders in the public relations field. Yet for years, Israel has been doing a terrible job of PR for its own battered international image.

  • The biggest enigma? The longer I live here, the more I discover that I don't understand.

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