American Mama Takes On Israeli Bureaucracy; Adds In A Dash Of God
I knew that I would forget.
Forget what it was about this courageous, quirky country of ours that makes my face and body relax into a contented smile of “Yes, this is right. Here we are. Here we will go.”
I think the feeling in Israeli air that all is good, gam zu l’tova, is half the feeling of closeness with Gd, and half the realization that we’re on some wild roller coaster ride in which anything can happen, so buckle up and enjoy the ride.
I don’t remember, often, that feeling of wild closeness in the smog of New York life, but every so often, in the midst of a Brooklyn summer, walking down the street and talking with a friend, I’ll smell it, randomly. That smell of Israel. Of magic and mystery. Of closeness and hope. Of safety and family.
It was in Israel for a year and a half that me and my husband first began to set down marriage roots. Where we learned about each other and about deeper secrets of Torah, as we held onto bus poles and navigated the winding streets of Yerushalyim, remarking every so often on the miracle that our bus did not ram into cars on the street as it widely and impossibly angled itself around tight corners and packed streets.
It was here that we learned to fight. Fight for our right to have landlords listen to our needs. Fight for the best deal at the shuk. Fight to find our path in this world. Fight to figure out how to live when finances are tight.
It was here, in this lush land of sing-song voices and abrupt scene changes, that I learned what it means to believe.
Schooled in Chabad Chassidus ideas, my husband spent many conversations trying to educate me on the difference between bitachon and emuna, and why I should aim for the former if possible.
Emuna, he would explain to my eyebrows bowed in confusion, was the belief that whatever happens is for the best. Hidden good,that looks dark, but is really a gift.
Bitachon, he would wave his arms to emphasize, is revealed good, that it’s already good and apparent to us. We aim, he would circle his arms to indicate us, is to have bitachon. It’s a confidence, a certainty, he would repeat.
And I would nod, trying to get it, with a lump in my throat.
Until one day, when I put it to the test.
There I found myself, in the throes of Israeli bureaucracy, with my four month old baby looking on as I moved up the line, with bitachon sown stubbornly into my gut. I had been there before, two weeks earlier.
It was the Misrad Hapnim, the infamous Ministry of the Interior. I was there for my visa. The Misrad Hapnim did not use computers to book appointments (that would be quite efficient). Rather, you went to the office, waited in line, and signed up for a date two weeks later. When you arrived two weeks later, they would invariably send you away for some unpredictable reason, resulting in you making another follow-up appointment for two weeks later. Ad nauseum.
I would not be turned away again. This time, I told myself resolutely, I had bitachon. I would walk out that day with my passport stamped. The look on my face was one of a soldier; determined, jaw set. Yet my eyes were also bright, twinkling. It would all be good.
I eventually was called up to Desk #5. The lady coldly gave me a quick once-over, and pawned through my documents. She set them down, and shook her head.
“I’m sorry,” she stated blankly, without a hint of compassion.”The letter from your school needs to be in Hebrew. You need to come back.”
What?! This new information threw off my soldier-face as my eyes opened wide in surprise. Quickly, I regained my composure. Bitachon is the name of the game, Rivka, I reminded myself gently. It’s going to be good. You’re getting that visa.
“No, it doesn’t need to be in Hebrew, “ I retorted firmly. “I was here two weeks ago and they told me exactly what I needed and they never mentioned it needed to be in Hebrew.
“Oh, yeah?” the woman’s eyebrow raised, nonplussed. She was the commander of this ship after all. “Well, it does need to be in Hebrew. You need to come back.”
“No,” I repeated. “It does not need to be in Hebrew.”
We stared at each other for a moment. My baby yawned. People shuffled around us. The silence grew. I wouldn’t back down.
“Well, there’s nothing I can do for you, “ she said finally, stoically, handing me back my documents.
“Who else can I speak to?” I replied, evenly.
She pointed to another woman, in a desk five feet away, surrounded by glass. I waited my turn. Bitachon, I repeated to myself, bitachon. You’re getting that visa.
The second woman waved me inside.
“What can I do for you?” she asks, disgusted before we even began.
I hand her the documents.
“She said the letter from the school needs to be in Hebrew, but it doesn’t. I was here two weeks ago and they never mentioned that.”
She set down the documents and looked at me, penetrating. “It needs to be in Hebrew,” she repeated icily.
“No,” I repeated again. “It doesn’t.”
“There’s nothing I can do for you.”
“Who can I speak to?” I demand again, not missing a beat.
She points over to a cubicle in the corner.
I walk over, hoisting my baby back into the carrier to rock back and forth as I wait. I breathe. Bitachon, bitachon. Trust. It’s all for the good.
The third woman waves me in to sit down. Her smile is softer, her sweater an inviting peach.
“What can I do for you?” she asks.
I take a deep breath. and hand her the documents. My soldier jaw is in place. “They said the letter from the school needs to be in Hebrew, but it doesn’t. I was here two weeks ago and they never mentioned that.”
She looks through the documents. “Why does it need to be in Hebrew?” she asks. She shakes her head. ““That’s ridiculous! “ She stamps my visa.
I walk out, the most triumphant I have ever been. I go home and repeat the story to my husband. He can not stop laughing.
Later on, relaxing in the quiet air of a Jerusalem night, copiously congratulating myself on a job well-done, a Chassidic parable I had learned recently comes to me, about a king who wants to test his son’s loyalty. So he sends a prostitute to seduce his son. Both the king and the prostitute are hoping that the son passes the test and turns her down. The trick, the parable goes, is to see the King in the prostitute, to see He who coordinates the challenges and not just the challenges themselves.
If there’s one thing I learned about Israelis in our magical, difficult time, it’s that Israelis detest people-pleasers. I see it now, the idolatry, of lowering myself to believe that the power is all in someone else’s hands. Even in the throes of Israeli bureaucracy. Even when the natural order of things becomes wonky. For there’s one King who runs the show, and that faith, that bitachon, that it’s all good, will all be good, lifts the worry from my shoulders, helps me think straight, and sets the power in the hands of the Rightful Owner.
And all I can do, be it in Holy City, Windy City or wherever life takes me, is buckle up my seatbelt, show everyone I fear no one, stick up for my destiny, and enjoy the ride.