When you study Hebrew as a new immigrant and the State of Israel pays for it, you’re supposed to go to class in the morning, study at home in the afternoon, have a good night’s sleep and come back to class the following day, 5 days per week, shining bright and full of verbs. Maybe some did, but the rest gathered in coffee shops, went to movies and free concerts and rarely formed study groups. That’s how it was in the late 80s and you weren’t allowed to undertake paid work in the afternoons. For being a good girl I received four hundred shekels per month. If you’re using dollars, divide by four. It wasn’t easy.
After 25 years here I suppose I could confess: I worked in the afternoons. I edited, I wrote, I signed up with Manpower and a couple of other agencies and since my English is good and I type really fast, I got jobs. I worked for the Jewish Agency; the Freud Institute, the National Insurance Institute—the all-powerful health and social agency—translating letters from French into English and answering them. Heart breakers, every one of them. ‘I was in Auschwitz and I lived in Israel from ____ to ____ and I wondered if I could obtain a pension based on my work record’. I was told to reply, “Non, nous regretons que c’est impossible.’ Edith Piaf was wrong.
Eventually I ended my jolly career as a student and got a real job. No more Iranians desperate to learn Hebrew and return to their previous professions—accountants, pharmacists, cosmeticians—and no more Russians. In one class I protested Svetlana’s interrupting the teacher who was trying valiantly to get us to understand the Israeli system of government, tough stuff. Svetlana wanted to inform us all about the Russian system and I called out We didn’t come here to learn about the Russians! BIG mistake. Came the break, sitting outside in the Spring air, I suddenly realized that all about me were disappearing, melting as it were into the shrubbery. Svetlana came steaming out, fists up. I am not a courageous person and as there was nowhere left to hide, I asked Svetlana how her old mother was faring since her recent eye operation. Fortunately I possessed enough vocabulary to cover the question and her temper cooled instantly. How kind of you to ask, she said. Bloody right.
When the subject of chequebooks and bank accounts came up, I was excused from class. Apparently the Russian immigrants—who had never handled their own money in such a way before—were convinced that as long as there were cheques left, there was money in their bank accounts.
One evening my daughter rang to ask if I had the Jerusalem POST, page 24, ‘there’s an advert that lacks only your name’. And so it did.
If you think being employed in Israel is easy, think again. The boss’s PA loved me, but they’d employed someone recently who turned out to be so inefficient that after they fired her, they’d decided that the next candidate would have to take psychological tests before being hired—the same ones I gave in North America when I worked for the psychiatrists. I said nothing, took the tests, was called back to see a big #1 on my file.
The boss was a philosophy professor; he’d written a book to be published in the USA. He wanted an English editor for the final draft and someone who could arrange a book tour of America for him. When he mentioned wanting to visit a certain university, I floored him with my knowledge of the president, having met him in quite another context some years before. Complete snobbery knows no borders.
Dealing with Princeton Press was easy. My opposite number was a young man called Mervin with vocal evidence of a Jewish community in his youth. We got on well, sympathizing with each other after every conference call during which the Professor blew up at one of us—never both. When at last the day came for departure ceremonies, I asked one favour: When you come back, let me know what Mervin is like in real life. What do you think? he asked. Oh, middle-aged man from a well known Jewish community in New York or New Jersey, tall, bald, married.
Mervin, it turned out, was brought up in New Orleans. He was young, single, short, with a full head of hair, and Black.
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