Thursday, February 17, 2005

The AIDS Test

Dr. Michael arrived at half past ten in the morning on a rainy winter day wearing a gray overcoat, a long-since fashionable paisley pullover sweater vest, and a big black case. He sat down across from me at my kitchen table and rifled through a wad of official looking papers.

Dr. Michael is a traveling insurance doctor. And his job today was to give me a physical in order to process the mortgage I wrote about last week.

What does getting a mortgage have to do with a visit from the doctor, you ask? Well, in Israel, in order to secure a home loan, you have to take out personal life insurance. I suppose it makes sense: the bank wants to know that if you die, they’ll be taken care of.

But there's also some strange rule that says if you already have a life insurance policy (which I do from a previous job), you have to get a physical in order to process the plan. Hence my visit from Dr. Michael.

Before we got started, I chatted a bit with the stranger in my kitchen. He had been in Israel for 15 years, he told me, was originally from the former Soviet Union. A fellow immigrant, he spoke Hebrew only passably better than me.

As long as he could understand “stop, that hurts!” we’d be fine I figured.

As I regarded Dr. Michael across the table, I imagined he once had grander designs for his professional life. Perhaps a research position in a major university hospital in Moscow, or a post as head of pediatrics in a private clinic.

But working for an insurance company shlepping from office to office and house to house...well, it’s certainly decent if not glamorous work. And with a broad grin permanently affixed to his roundish face, he seemed to have a great attitude.

He started by asking me questions.

Cancer? No.

Smoker? No.

Women’s problems? He snickered and answered for me, checking off the appropriate box. For some reason, the people filling out forms always seem to think that question is a real hoot.

The rest of the exam was pretty much pro forma: check the blood pressure, pee in a cup. Most of Dr. Michael’s big black bag was filled with a portable EKG device. I lay down and he strapped it on.

“You might feel a little electric shock,” he said, then winked.

I tried to think calming thoughts.

Finally it was time for my favorite part: the blood test (not...remember my encounter with needles last year?)

“You need to sign this,” Dr. Michael said, pointing at a form with lots of tiny Hebrew writing on it.

“What’s it for?” I asked.

“AIDS test,” he replied.

Now wait a minute. Checking for AIDS isn't something you throw around cavalierly. I was in college when knowledge about AIDS was just starting to make the front pages, and whether or not to get tested for HIV was a big deal. I remember friends nervously waiting for a phone call that might very well determine their future.

“What if I don’t agree?” I asked Dr. Michael.

“Then you don’t get the insurance,” he said matter-of-factly, still smiling, but this time without the comforting wink.

I was momentarily stunned by the utter lack of respect the Israeli system shows for issues such as the protection of personal privacy. And the implication that someone who is HIV positive would be ineligible for a mortgage seemed blatantly discriminatory. If we had been in California, I'm sure a demand like this would be illegal. But what choice did I have?

“Fine," I said. "Go ahead.”

I had been taken aback but it wasn’t like I was particularly worried. After sixteen years of marriage and no blood transfusions of note, I’d be pretty shocked if something showed up now.

But hey, wait a minute, what about that needle he was using...had I actually seen him break the plastic seal?

Blood extracted, Dr. Michael handed me a cotton ball and told me to press down. Israeli lab technicians, apparently, don’t believe in Band-Aids.

Dr. Michael packed up his gear and shook my hand as he headed out the door. “Hey, don’t get 'stuck' in traffic,” I quipped.

He looked at me quizzically; my attempt at humor falling flat on the floor along with the little cotton ball from my arm.

Well, I passed the test: I don't have AIDS and now, at long last, we do have our mortgage. And there was a positive side to the whole experience, too: I got a chance to spend a few minutes with a fellow immigrant to Israel who I might not have otherwise met.

Perhaps that, despite my trepidation for tests and long-standing dispassion for needles, was the real point.

Thursday, February 10, 2005

Three Falafels and a Mortgage

We’ve got some good news: we bought a house.

Yes, after 10 years of renting in Israel and seven before that in California, Jody and I have finally joined the ranks of the home owners. There’s only one thing still in the way:

Getting a mortgage.

Since we never had to apply for a home loan back in the old country, I can’t share any insights on transcontinental cultural and bureaucratic differences. I hear it’s pretty nasty anywhere in the world.

All I know is that, here in Israel, securing a mortgage is a tongue-twisting, nerve shattering matter of luck, timing, and sheer tenacity.

Here’s our experience.

First of all, there are a dozen or so banks offering mortgages and every one of them, it seems, proffers a slight twist, making it hard to do a straight comparison. With advice from friends, we hit the pavement (reservations not required...nor, in most cases even allowed).

We started with the bank where we have our home checking accounts: First International Bank of Israel. The mortgage department consists of two clerks (this we’d find was standard at all the banks). Of those, one was seeing a client. The other was speaking heatedly into the phone.

From the paper in her hand, though – she was waving around her car registration and driver’s license – it was clear she wasn’t conducting bank business.

OK, it happens. But this went on for a good ten minutes. She never looked up, never motioned to us to sit down or made one of those apologetic gestures indicating she was trying her best.

When she finally hung up, she glanced in our direction, cranked up a fake smile and turned on the sugar and spice.

We were not impressed.

We did, however, get a good primer into how the system works. There are three main options: loans linked to the prime index (which can be changed every month), loans linked to the dollar (which can be changed every three or six months), and fixed interest loans which, despite how it sounds, aren’t really fixed because they’re linked to increases in the cost of living index...that is inflation.

In other words, there is no way of actually locking in an interest rate and knowing what it will be for the next twenty years.

There’s also a new immigrants loan (zakaut) that has a very low interest rate, runs for a whopping 28 years and reportedly some of it even becomes a grant.

And, oh yes, you can take a mix of the different programs in any way you want.

Heads throbbing, we did what we were told to do next – get a quote in writing that we could take to another bank to get an even better deal.

“Oh, no, there’s no such thing,” Ilana the clerk told us. “You’ll just have to trust me. Don’t worry about it. I’ve been working in this bank for 25 years.”

And then she added that ever so Israeli phrase that countenances no argument: “y’hiye beseder" – it will be all right.


Our second stop was Bank Hapoalim. Our cler, Ella, was more genuine, but kept adjusting a frumpy hat that sat loosely (too loosely I thought) on a head of dirty blond hair as she mumbled her way through rates and regulations.

Ella, unlike Ilana, offered to open up a file for us right on the spot. She printed out a wad of papers and told us where to sign. Staring at 50 pages of small Hebrew text, we did as we were told, not sure whether we’d applied for a mortgage or rented out our children for slave labor...working as loan clerks in a dingy downtown bank.

As this had taken close to three hours, we treated ourselves to a falafel, Israel’s national fast food. The joint was packed and in a good location, just opposite Jerusalem’s famous outdoor market – Mahane Yehdua.

The french fries were soggy but the price was cheap. Was this a hint: that when it came to our mortgage, price trumps quality and service?

“At least we don’t have to calculate interest rates for the falafel,” I quipped. Jody didn’t laugh.

The next day, we headed downtown again. We visited two banks – Tefahot and Adanim – which both left us as cold as our falafel the day before.

Our final stop was Bank Leumi which proved to be a welcome change. Dafna wore a bright expression and presented herself as extremely professional. Everything about her – from the way she explained the process clearly – in English, I might add – to her clothes and make up were put together just right. She’d get back to us within two days with an answer to our request.

We treated ourselves to another falafel as a reward. Things seemed to be looking up. The meal from the Yemenite falafel stand on HaNevi’im street was fresh and hot with a tangy sauce that seriously burned my mouth. Just the way I like it. (Only later did I realize that this falafel stand had been blown up by a suicide bomber in July 2002.)

Dafna called a day early to say our loan had been approved and would we like to set up – what’s this – an appointment...boy, someone had trained this bank in customer service!

In we went, ready to make a deal. Our friends told us that it was at this point, when offers are on the table, that you can really negotiate. We had decided on a mix between prime and fixed. I was sure Dafna would come down a couple of points on one or both.

Dafna didn’t budge. What she’d offered was a very good rate, she said, and the bank had the most flexible early pay back terms.

We headed back to Ella. Could she beat Dafna’s offer? "Absolutely," Ella said, wiggling a different yet equally frumpy hat. "Just give me a day or two to get it approved."

Well, this went on for a week. Playing one bank against the other. Slowly squeezing the rates down .001% at a time. For what? A difference of $10 a month. Although as Jody, our family’s financial wiz pointed out, over 20 years would add up to a tidy two grand. And $10 covers a movie and maybe even a small popcorn!

Finally, perhaps out of pure exhaustion, we decided to go with Dafna. Her rate was still too high, but she was the most pleasant to sit across a desk from.

We headed downtown and began collecting the final papers. We walked out with a stack of documents for our accountant and our lawyer, two forms to get notarized, life insurance to take out (more on that next time), the phone number for an assessor.

We felt overwhelmed but satisfied with our decision...or at least that we’d made a decision.

No sooner had we left the bank when Ella called on the cellphone. We told her what we'd agreed to. "I can beat that by another 2 points on the fixed and .01 on the prime," she implored. "You haven’t signed anything yet...have you?"

I felt duped. A freier – the Israeli epithet for sucker. Taken in by a pretty face and a smattering of English. Once the loan was secured, we’d probably never see or speak to Dafna again.

I called Dafna. “OK, I know you don’t have to do anything here, but could you get us just a little bit more.” My argument didn’t even convince Jody, but Dafna said she’d try. We continued with the paperwork, our faith in Israeli bureaucracy hanging on this last test.

Dafna met us half way. And she agreed to waive the processing charges, which was worth at least $250 off the top. Maybe it wasn’t the best over the long term, but we wouldn’t have to start all over again, thank God.

On our final day, after we’d brought in all the signed papers, we treated ourselves to one last falafel. But not just any falafel.

We’d heard about a little take-away place on Shamai Street that makes “sabich” – an Iraqi version of the falafel. Instead of chickpeas, it has hot hardboiled egg and fried eggplant with spicy amba (mango sauce) in a freshly-baked pita. It was delicious. A fitting toast to our own grilling experience.

We don’t move for another year (long story...rental contracts that can’t be broken), but the mortgage part of the process is just about over.

So, if you’re ever in Jerusalem, drop us a line. We can tell you where to go for a mortgage...and for falafel.

Thursday, February 03, 2005

Rock and Roll Junior High School

Who ever said that getting into junior high had to be such a production? But that’s exactly what it was – a full theatrical production – at the Jerusalem Girls’ School for Torah and the Arts.

Let’s step back a moment…

My wife Jody and I recently accompanied our eleven-year-old sixth grader Merav to two “open houses” of Jerusalem junior high schools. Elementary school in Israel only runs through sixth grade. Most grade schools feed into a particular intermediate school which covers seventh and eighth grades and usually (but not always) a four year high school after that.

All of this is scheduled to change if the Dovrat Commission implements its recommendations (which call for, among other things, the abolition of two year intermediate schools). But for now it puts an inordinate amount of pressure on the kids. Why?

Because what if your child doesn’t want to go to the junior high that’s “connected” to her school? Then she’s run through the ringer with tests and psychometric exams and waiting lists and way too much stress for one so young.

We already knew the drill – we’d been through it two years ago with now-eighth grader Amir. But most of the religious schools in Jerusalem are sex-segregated after sixth grade. So we couldn’t rely on our experience with Amir. We were starting over from scratch.

We had always assumed that Merav would go from Efrata, her elementary school, to Evelina de Rothschild (named after the wife of Baron Ferdinand de Rothschild...isn’t it great how in Israel, even school names evoke history).

Now, even though Efrata does not feed automatically into Evelina, and so would entail the aforementioned tests, it always seemed the most “like us” – moderate religiously, good academics, well balanced.

But when we attended Evelina’s open house, we discovered another adjective attached to the school we didn’t expect: boring.

I hate to be rude, but there’s no getting around it: the open house was a major league snooze-fest.

The principal monotoned on and on, barely cracking a smile, while parents and prospective students alike squirmed in their seats. The PowerPoint – and by this time, I was excited to see anything potentially more dynamic up near the dais – was as flat as the rest of the evening.

Now, it’s true that Evelina has been through some tough times in the last year. Its former headmaster was suspended in what the Jerusalem Report reported as a vindictive power struggle waged against her by the outgoing administration. The new principal was clearly nervous at the open house; maybe I shouldn’t be so hard on her.

Still, it was like they weren’t even trying.

At the following evening’s open house at Omanuyot – the Emunah-run Torah and Arts school I mentioned earlier – the contrast couldn’t have been clearer. From the second we walked into the foyer, there was electricity in the air. The principal was working the crowd. Girls were dressed up in costumes, handing out stickers and sweets. Art covered every wall.

Instead of sitting for an hour and a half lecture, we were led on a guided tour of the school which as its name implies encourages – no requires – its students to “major” in the arts. And we’re not even talking about college here.

We visited the sculpture room and the animation studio. In a demonstration of the music program, four girls performed a song they’d written themselves – two vocalists, guitar and piano – that could easily have been a hit on Galgalatz (Israel’s top pop station).

In the film room, we learned that girls can specialize in cinema as we watched a student video project. Theater students acted out a dramatic reading of what they were learning.

It was only at our last stop of the night – the dance studio – that we hit a snag.

“Sorry, but the men will have to leave during the performance,” the instructor explained.

“What?” I muttered to Jody, feeling like I’d just taken a punch for God.

Merav grinned and waved goodbye as I made my way to the door. But I was feeling anything but nonchalant.

Why should men be excluded from this? I go to movies and plays and watch TV…I have long disagreed with the dictum in the ultra-orthodox world that men need special “protection” from the weakness and urges inherent in our sex.

I was coming up against the “Torah” component of this school for Torah and the Arts, and the administration’s interpretation of religiosity had been nagging at me all night..

Indeed, hadn’t the Rabbi made a point during brief opening remarks of saying that he discouraged graduates from serving in the army (though, to his credit, he did sanction sherut leumi – national service)?

And what about those rumors I’d heard that this was a school that ran spot checks on girl’s skirt and sleeve lengths. Girls, it was murmured, were forbidden from wearing pants – both in school and out. From my experience in the dance room, that didn’t seem so far off.

Moreover, I couldn’t decide if the innovation of having a school where religious girls could express themselves creatively was an impressive step forward towards equality between the sexes …or if what was really being implied was that girls couldn’t compete on the academics, so let them indulge a little in the arts.

As Merav and Jody walked out of the mini-dance recital, Merav picked up on my predicament.

“The girls were in tight leotards,” she said. “They would have been uncomfortable. It has nothing to do with you.”

Smart cookie that one.

Whether we choose Omanuyot in the end or give Evelina the benefit of the doubt, there will be compromises. There is no perfect place. But it certainly is good to have so many options.

And Evelina seemed to have learned from its mistakes by the time Merav went in for her written entrance exam – 12th graders had posted great big “welcome” signs; they were passing out cookies and practically leading cheers, Merav reported.

Omanuyot, however, does have two more things going for it that may very well tip the balance in its favor. First, it is the school connected to Merav’s elementary school – that means no tests. And second: it’s walking distance from our house.

To avoid having to deal with a carpool for the next two or maybe six years, I suspect I could probably live with having to step out of a dance recital every now and then.