To be a new immigrant in Israel is to sit in some god forsaken government office and wait your turn.
Twenty years after the advent of the computer and internet and scanning documents, there is still so, so much paperwork. Identity cards with photos in light blue plastic covers and proof of residency cards in dark blue little booklets—one for new immigrants, another for returning residents and perhaps a different one for native Israelis. All that on top of drivers’ licenses and health care cards. Life in Israel is paperwork hell.
I remember vividly my first few forays into the land of administrative encounters when I emigrated twenty years ago—when I had to provide my parents’ wedding contract to prove that they were Jewish for me to be able to marry in Israel, when I had to change my maiden name to my married name on my ID card. There were no automated systems at that time; people simply crammed into a spartan, hot room and screamed and elbowed their way up to the next available window. Every clerk had to search, open, close and file a new file and record the information by hand.
In the planning stages of this move, I had warned Philippe that I would no longer be Madame-Take-Care-of All-our-Administrative-Details. If he wanted to live in Israel, he was going to have to join me in paper-gatory.
On Tuesday afternoon, 13 days after we arrived, Philippe and I together ventured out into the tightly spun administrative web called bureaucracia. Our first stop: the Ministry of Interior. In order to go to the Ministry of Absorption the following day for a previously scheduled appointment to update our status (once new immigrants, now called returning residents) and determine that of the girls (lumped with us as returning residents even though they never lived here as residents), we had to first obtain a summary of our entries and exits over the past seven years (we are required to travel in and out of the country with our Israeli passports, each of which is computerized). Philippe checked the hours of the Ministry of Interior on their website, and we went bearing our US and Israeli passports and our two-decade old new immigrant booklet. The office opened at 2:30. We walked in the door at 2:45. The place was empty—no clerk to check us in or hand us a number, no one else waiting in the empty chairs, no hustle or bustle behind the open cubbies. The only thing that registered was how lucky we were that we had beaten the crowd! I had both my book and my laptop, and I wouldn’t have a need for either.
“Can I help you?” one of the only two clerks asked from across the room in Hebrew. One was seated and looked busy while the other was standing, walking toward her, idling.
“I’m here to change our status.”
“But we’re closed. How did you get in?”
“The door was open. My husband just checked the website this morning, which says you’re open today.” Both women started shaking their heads, and I could feel administrative dread seep into my bones. They explained they are open on Monday and Wednesday afternoons; this was Tuesday. It’s a common mistake for many: in Hebrew, Sunday is the first day of the week or yom aleph (a). Philippe probably forgot about Sunday and thought Monday was yom a, which would make Tuesday yom beit (b) even though it is really yom gimel (g).
“Tell me what you need,” the seated woman said.
“We left the country in 1994 and have just returned. We have to change our status because tomorrow morning we have an appointment at the Ministry of Absorption, who told us we had to come here first for the paper.” The woman acknowledged my request, clearly understanding what we needed.
“Give me your ID number. Let’s see if I can help you.“ I recited my nine-digit number without thinking. She typed it in to her computer.
I nodded my head yes.
This kind stranger proceeded to tell us that they were leaving work in 15 minutes but maybe she could take care of us in that time. Could we please hand over our ID cards and passports so she could start? We complied, smiling, relaxed, giddy with luck.
Two, maybe three minutes, passed. Miraculously, this woman began printing our new information sheets to accompany our 20-year-old ID cards with our updated address, which entitled us to a free parking sticker for all blue-and-white striped parking places in Raanana. “Hinei,” she handed us our papers. The printer continued on its merry way. Pages and pages of paper, which, she explained, were summaries of our entries and exits in Israel. First mine, then Daniella’s, then Simone’s, lastly Philippe’s.
“Can I give you a hug?” I asked this woman. She looked up from her computer at me, and we made eye contact for the first time. I saw her as a person, not just as a bureaucrat. She was dressed like a typical Israeli—casually—with a white t-shirt and some word written across her chest in silver sparkles and white pants. Her chestnut brown hair was shoulder length, wavy, and her face was nondescript. But she was warm, willing to help and wanting to make small talk. Like many Israelis we meet, she asked us our vital stats—where we’re originally from, how we meet, how old our children are, why we left [Israel], what brought us back. Instead of feeling annoyed by her curiosity, I was amused and repeatedly offered to give her a hug or kiss for her effort and time.
“Yesh ba’aya,” she said, “ze’re is a problem.” The printer paper was jamming every few pages, but that wasn’t the problem she meant. It was Philippe’s passport. One stamp from a departure date in February 2008 didn’t correspond to an entry date according to the computer screen in front of her. She leafed through his passport in search of the correct stamp.
Five or six minutes passed as the clerk calmly tried to resolve the discrepancy between Philippe’s passport and the computer. After consulting her colleague, who didn’t know the answer either, she finally picked up the phone to call someone, perhaps a supervisor or an IT specialist. She reached a human voice, nodded her head yes several times, clicked on her keyboard and handed me the phone, “Tell her thank you,” she said in a hushed Hebrew.
“I want to thank you for your time,” I said into the phone, feeling generous and grateful. “Pleasant day to you.” I handed back the phone, still unsure of who was on the other end.
“Zeho. You are done. The dates are fixed.” She printed out Philippe’s papers then put all of them together in a white manila envelope. “Now you take these tomorrow to Misrad haKlitah and they will determine your status,” she said, handing me the precious goods. I bent down to stuff the envelope in my backpack and looked up. My new friend stood up, also ready to leave, and opened her arms. “Give me a hug now,” she said. I stood and held out my arms to give—and take—that hug. We held one another for a few seconds as I whispered thanks into her ear.
Philippe and I left feeling light and fortunate, repeating how lucky we had been over and over to one another as well as to anyone else who would listen. Looking back, I think it was a combination of good luck and good karma. If you keep your heart open, others will too.