Wednesday, April 28, 2004


Here’s something you never want to see when you're driving: a policeman waving his arms, motioning you to pull you over.

My first thought was that there had been a terrorist attack and they were diverting traffic. I was driving near the Jerusalem Central Bus Station so it was a distinct possibility.

The reality, however, was more prosaic. I had made a wrong turn and was now in a lane reserved for buses and taxis only.

I had to think fast. How could I possibly wiggle out of a ticket? I decided to play the stupid immigrant card. It had worked for me once before.

Back in 1984, when I first came to Israel, I actually got stopped by a policewoman for jay walking! It happened when I was strolling across a street downtown, near Zion Square.

Everyone else was doing it.

As the officer approached, I told him that I spoke no Hebrew. He didn’t seem to speak much English himself, so he let me off rather than put himself through the exasperation.

Twenty years later, apparently, the police have taken a few English lessons. The officer at my window this time had a decent command of my mother tongue and was not letting me go so easily.

"License," he commanded.

“I’ve driven here many times,” I explained. “When did they make it just for public transportation?”

“Three years ago,” he grunted.

“Yes, but is there a sign?” I challenged him, hoping for a lucky loophole.

He motioned to a large orange slab of metal.

“Hey, it’s in Hebrew!” I protested.

The cop just shrugged.

I tried a different tack. “Is this going to be expensive? My family...well, we’re on a budget you see, and…”

He gave my car a once over, as if to say you can’t be too poor if you’re driving a Toyota.

“What’s your street address?” he asked.

“26 Rechov…” I started, then quickly stopped mid-sentence as I realized I was giving away my game by using the Hebrew word for “street.” And, although you my dear readers know too well about my deficiencies in Hebrew, I have over the years learned just enough to know how to roll a respectable resh or emit a guttural “ch.”

“Can’t you help me out here?” I pleaded one last time.

“I can’t give to one and not to another,” he stated matter of factly.

And I thought: of course you can! That’s what being Israeli is all about. Bending the rules. Showing flexibility.

When I used to work in Tel Aviv, I had to park in a public lot. I got to know the parking lot booth attendants – Yossi and Moshe. We would schmooze, I’d tell them a funny story, they’d complain about the heat. After awhile, Yossi started charging me only every other day. Moshe let me in for free every day. I never asked why; they never explained.

My policeman in Jerusalem was having none of it. He went back to his motorbike and wrote up a ticket. It took him a good ten minutes. He joked with the other police people while some guy brought him a cup of coffee. Just get it over with it, I thought. I’m already running late.

When he finally returned, he held out a ticket… all in Hebrew. And the policeman’s writing was none too neat. Even so, it wasn’t hard to spot the bad news: 250 shekels. Just about $55.

As I took possession of my fine, the officer turned to me and said “Now just don’t let it happen again.” He then flashed me a broad smile. It wasn’t mean or vindictive. More a way of saying “it’s nothing personal.” I tried to manage a smile of my own, something on the order of “and you have a good day too.”

Now, I would like to tell you that with those smiles and conciliatory words, the policeman and I miraculously felt an intense bonding. I would like to tell you that he promptly ripped up the ticket and left me off with just a warning.

Instead, I pulled away and, in the rear view mirror, watched as he flagged down another driver who had driven into the wrong lane and, I imagined, was now attempting to talk his way out of a English.