Have exact change

My actual hands, and my actual change. As captured by my web cam, as I couldn't find my camera. Also, I think I need to moisturize. 

This is probably not one of my weightier posts, but it just might make a difference on your next trip to the shuk or even the super. If you want to be Israeli, plan on having exact change.

This is not because vendors run out of change. This is because vendors (from cashiers to department stores) see themselves as professional authorities, and it is their job to make sure that you don't disturb the balance of agurot to shekels in their change drawers. So what if this inconveniences you, the customer. In Israel, the sales person is always right!

Here's an example: today I went to Eden, which is essentially the Israeli Whole Foods. My total purchases came out to something like 90.23, and I paid with a 100 shekel bill. The checkout girl took my money-- something she might not have done if I had tried to pay with a 200 shekel bill. Then I would have heard the classic question, ein lach kesef katan? Don't you have smaller money (i.e. smaller denominations of money)? It's sometimes actually difficult to get rid of a 200 shekel bill... don't even think of using it to buy a 14 shekel felofel serving!

Back in the US, this is where our transaction would have stopped. The checkout girl would have entered in the money I gave her into the cash register and dutifully returned to me a five-shekel coin,  two two-shekel coins, one one-shekel coin, one half-shekel coin, and three ten-agurah coins. (There are technically 100 agurot to a shekel, but they abolished the one agurah coin a while ago, so the smallest denomination in our money is 10 agurot. This means that the price of my wasabi beans and organic pitot gets rounded to the nearest 10 agurot, which always makes me feel special when I get a three-agura discount.) And, ok, technically a checkout girl in the US would not give me my change in shekels, but you get my point. American checkout people believe the customer and the computer are always right, so they don't like to do any hard math of their own.

Instead, the checkout girl looked at my money, looked at the total, and asked me if I had 20 agurot. I fished in my purse, found 20 agurot, and received back one ten shekel coin.

This is a really small example, but I can't tell you how many times this has happened to me in Israel. I'm always getting asked if I have fifty agurot, kesef katan, or smaller bills. Israelis will stand at their cash registers for 10 minutes while you find and solicit exact change from your spouse in the next store rather than give you a lot of extra change.

By the way, if you really don't have exact change, just tell the checkout person that and act really apologetic. They will take pity on you and dip into their stores of change in dire emergencies. Unless you're trying to buy falofel with a 200-shekel bill... then you might starve. What do you think they are, in the business of accepting and returning money from customers? Oh. Well.... still. You'll starve.

Have you noticed the Israeli mania for exact change? Has anyone ever actually refused to take your money because you couldn't pay in kesef katan?


Israelis: just not as obsessed by the Arab-Israeli conflict as the rest of the world

First, today is my one-year blogaversary! I started this blog one year ago on February 22nd with a post about voting in the most fraught mayoral elections ever, and I'm happy to report that a year out Kiryat Bialik is still busily attempting to transform itself into Kiryat Motzkin. (Apparently, we're trying to do that by painting the large rocks that lie around our town in bright primary colors. Seriously. It's pretty hideous.)

If you want to make me really happy, go read some of my first few posts, including classics such as "This is a mop" and "Election Ads: Apply Directly to the Forehead." My second post ever-- how to make Israeli Salad-- is still one of the most visited posts on this site, thanks to all of the random people googling to impress their Israeli boyfriends (at least, that's my theory). When I google "Israeli Salad," I get my own blog as the second hit, which means that I now officially consider myself the world's second-most leading expert on the preparation of Israeli salad and, hence, by logical extension, on all things Israeli. Thank you. Thank you very much.

Hehe. Or maybe all this "I actually kept a blog going (more or less) for one year" euphoria is going to my head. (Plus, my husband says I come in fourth when he searches for "Israeli salad," which is just outside the medals. Darn it.)

Anyway, today I want to post about a phenomenon I've noticed since moving to Israel: Israelis are a lot less obsessed by every little shift in Israeli-Arab relations than the rest of the world. I mean, obviously Israelis care about "foreign policy" on a different level: if we go to war with Iran, nukes fall in our backyards. Hamas shoots missiles at Sderot and they land in our cousin's daughter's kindergarten. We launch a massive invasion into Gaza and that's our brothers, sisters, and children there on the front lines. Israelis have passionate (and polarized) opinions about politics and about the way Israel should navigate its relations with Arab nations and the Palestinians.

But so often, I see blaring headlines in American media about Israel and run to Israeli newspapers to find out the rest of the story.... only to discover that the lead news story in Israel is the finale of cochav nolad. For example, foreign media is currently obsessed by the assassination of a Hamas leader in Dubai. Israeli media has certainly covered this story, but ultimately it doesn't surprise most Israelis very much. The reaction of any Israeli I've asked can be summed up as "If the Mosad did it, it should have been done much more quietly." Or, for example, while Iran is a big news story here, Israelis are certain that Iran is developing nukes, so all of this breathless are-they-or-aren't-they speculation loved by NPR is passed over here. Israelis also tend to be quite cynical about the future of Israeli-Arab relations; they've seen every headline before, so they don't get all excited over each new possible development. And, frankly, daily life goes on.

To show you what I mean, consider the English and Hebrew websites of Yediot Ahronot, one of Israel's leading newspapers. Yesterday, this was the front page of the English edition, www.ynetnews.com (click any image to see a larger version):

Basically all of the stories are about Israeli-Arab relations, which I guess makes sense: that's all that people outside of Israel tend to see (or care about) in terms of our little country. 

But here was the front page of the Israeli version, www.ynet.co.il:


Here's a translation (thanks to the creative word choices of Google translate):

I kind of feel badly that Tamar (whoever she is) is getting drilled, but what strikes me most about the Hebrew headlines is just how ordinary life within Israel feels when you're here. The top story was about a major traffic jam on "kvish hachof," one of our main highways. The article on the bottom of the screen that gets translated as "Occupation"? It's not referring to occupation of Palestinian lands, but to occupation for your hands as you make homemade Purim goodies. (It's actually a pun-- "mishloach yad" means this kind of occupation, while "mishloach manot" are the gifts we send on Purim.) The second story, which Google elegantly translates as "What do Csbdihh can not" is not an essay on what to do when UN inspections fail. Its title is actually "Ma osim ceshehabedicha lo matzliach," or "What to do when a joke falls flat," and it features an interview with two young people with special needs.

And, in a sense, this is what I've tried to convey through this blog. How ridiculous, beautiful, and ordinary life in Israel can be. How Israelis are stubborn, loud, quirky, and kind. How the question of "what do you use to mop a floor" can be more important to the daily life of a new olah than "what do you think about granting the right of return to Palestinian refugees." Certainly, the second question could impact my daily life even more than dirt on my floors, but life in Israel is so much more funny and full than NPR headlines would have you believe.

Here's to another year of being Israeli! Thanks so much for reading. Comments and links make me warm and fuzzy inside every time.

P.S. If you want to read good coverage of the Hamas assassination controversy, I highly recommend the daily updates being posted by www.israellycool.com. Also, Ruti Mizrachi posted a really beautiful edition of the Jewish blog carnival, Haveil Havelim, over at Ki Yachol Nuchal. Check it out!


Punning in Hebrish

One thing I've come to appreciate since moving here is that English has a life of its own as a second language. At first I thought it was weird to see, say, Serbian Eurovision announcers talking to each other in awkward English, but then I started to realize that there are many forms of English: American English, British English, and International English (including its Israeli form, Hebrish).  In some Israeli commercials, for example, you actually hear voice-overs in Israeli-accented English-- sure, they could have found someone with a flawless American accent, but they wanted Hebrish, not American English.

One of the most awesome and cringe-worthy aspects of Hebrish is the Israeli love for bad Hebrew-English puns. For example, a pizza shop down the street from us is called פיצה מן, which is a mild pun on "man" and "manna" (as in the bread that rained from the sky for the Israelites in Sinai). "Manna" in Hebrew is pronounced "mon." To any American, the vowel sound in "man" and "mon" are not the same (unless the pizza joint is rostafarian, mon). But Israelis don't hear the difference between these vowels, so... welcome to the world of Hebrish punning, where "dead pun" takes on a whole new meaning.

Here are a few other classic bad Hebrish puns... what would you add to the list?


1. The Grand Canyon... which is a mall near Haifa. "Kenyon" is the Hebrew word for "mall." What better name for a big mall than "Grand Canyon"? What... you don't think a majestic natural wonder and a shopping center have anything in common? Well... but... kenyon! Canyon! Get it?

2. Zer4U, a chain of Israeli florists. If you don't get this one right away, first consider the fact that "zer" means "bouquet" in Hebrew. Then say "zer 4 U" really slowly and imagine yourself speaking English with a thick Israeli accent... get it? Get it? I'm zer for you!

3. Cup O'Joe, an Israeli coffee shop chain. (Thanks to Toby for pointing this one out in the comments of my post about Israelis not being able to read their own language!) Ok, so this one really only works if you read the name in Hebrew as well. In the English version, you see that the name is "cup o'Joe," which obviously refers to a cup of coffee (Joe). But in Hebrew, the vowels and consonants are ambiguous, so the name just as easily reads as "cuppa joe" or "cafe joe"-- and the word for "coffee" in Hebrew is "cafe." See how that works? This is a little more sophisticated than Grand Kenyon or Zer4U, but still fabulous. 


4. Top Gan... an Israeli kindergarten. So the word for kindergarten (and garden) is "gan," and that old Tom Cruise movie was called "Top Gun," and in Hebrish "gan" and "gun" are the same sound....  hence this actual name for an Israeli daycare center. (That's not the actual picture-- it's what came up when I ran a google image search for "top gan." Based on its context, I'd say it's some kind of knock-off image from Indonesia.) Do you really want to imagine Tom Cruise giving you thumbs up as you drop little Itay off at gan? Does a Tom Cruise flight movie and a kindergarten have anything in common other than the word "gan"? No... but that never stopped Hebrew punsters! ("Top Gan" is also the name of a chain of garden stores: www.topgan.co.il.) 

Update: here's the real picture of the outside of the Gan, and though it isn't as pretty as a young Tom Cruise, it's about as creepy-looking:

Here's one that "anonymous" brought up in the comments, and it was too good to leave out...

5. Oh Magash, a chain of pizza shops. (Magash=pan of pizza.) Priceless! (For the record, I'm going to continue to believe that "Paz Gas" is not an intentional pun.... please don't tell me otherwise. That would just be too depressing. www.pazgas.co.il)

This phenomenon is so widespread that I'm sure there are examples I'm missing. Have you encountered any bad Hebrish puns?


The Art of Shopping at a Yarkan

The yarkan where I shop-- click to see a larger version and read the prices :)

In many random ways, Israel is "greener" than the US-- for example, we heat our water using solar panels in the summer and generally drive fuel-efficient cars. But one of the biggest ways in which we're green comes is found in the little shops whose name sounds like the word "green" ("yarok"): we get almost all of our fruits and veggies locally, while the US flies unripe produce in from, say, Chile so that everyone can eat tasteless tomatoes ALL YEAR ROUND! Score! This means a few things:

1. If you want to get a peach or a slice of watermelon in February, you're out of luck. (According to the owner of my yarkan, the one veggie that comes from overseas-- and therefore is available out of season-- is the white garlic from China, which isn't nearly as flavorful as the purple garlic from Israel.)

2. Our fruits and vegetables actually have taste. I honestly thought cucumbers tasted like water (sometimes bitter water) before I came to Israel. Think again!

To shop for vegetables like an Israeli, go to the shuk or shop at any one of your neighborhood yarkans... we have at least three within two blocks of our apartment. (The word "yarkan" probably comes from the word for vegetables, "yerakot.")

Here are some tips for shopping at a yarkan like a native:
  • Everything is always on sale. In the Yarkan where I shop, all prices are written on scraps of cardboard boxes, and about half of the prices are accompanied by the word מבצע-- SALE! So, er, don't trust the signs. (Closely related is the idea that everything is seedless. Don't believe everything your yarkan guy says.) Instead...
  • Know what's a good price. A typical price for basics like tomatoes, onions, cucumbers, oranges, eggplant or potatoes is 2.99 shekels a kilo, which even with the weak dollar is equivalent to about 35 cents a pound. I've bought tomatoes at the yarkan for as little as 99 agurot a kilo, which is about 11 cents a pound. (Don't forget-- first divide by 3.8 or so for the exchange rate into dollars, then divide by 2.2 to convert kilos to pounds!) A good price for, say, persimmons, kiwi fruit, pears, apricots or avocados is about 6 shekels a kilo (equivalent to about 70 cents a pound). I buy about three canvas bags full of fruits and veggies every week and usually spend about 50-70 shekels.
  • Don't always buy the cheapest tomatoes. The fruits and veggies sitting out front on a really good sale sometimes have sat there for a while. Unless you plan to eat the tomatoes right away, you might want to splurge on the slightly more expensive tomatoes that are sitting inside in the shade.
  • Onions and celery grow in dirt. You may need to wash them when you get home. Live with it. Sometimes shopping at a yarkan takes you, er, a little closer to the earth than shopping in an American grocery store does. That's because American veggies get power washed and quite possibly didn't stay in the ground long enough to get dirty.
  • Don't squeeze the peaches. Sometimes the owners of the yarkan get a little, shall we say, possessive? It's only natural. After all, they own the yarkan and essentially own all the fruits and veggies on their shelves. Which means that a hypothetical brand-new olah trying to shop for peaches during one of her first days in Israel might get yelled at for pinching peaches before she chooses to buy them. At which point, hypothetically, she might get offended and shop at a different yarkan for a few months until she stops thinking like an American and realizes that her thumb print just might not belong on someone else's peach.
  • Save bags by putting all the veggies at one price together in one bag. The owner of my yarkan weighs veggies and types in their prices by hand-- no code stickers (or stickers of any kind, actually) on my fruit. So he doesn't care if I mix my tomatoes and potatoes so long as they're all the same price. Even so, you'll end up with a ton of the little colored yarkan sakiot nylon, but you do what you can.
  • Bring cash. Again, the yarkan isn't big on careful record keeping or fancy money transactions. It doesn't contain any kind of bar-code scanner and it certainly doesn't accept credit cards.
  • Ask the owner what weird-looking fruit and veggies are. He will laugh at you for not knowing the identity of the giant sooty radish, but you'll get over it. Then do a web search when you get home to figure out how to eat the food. Did you know that the yummiest way to eat a ripe persimmon is to cut off the top and scoop out the insides like pudding? 
  • Let the owner pick out your watermelon half. He prides himself on getting you the sweetest piece, and he'll cut it open for you on the spot. Israelis rarely seem to buy a whole watermelon. 
  • Never buy your veggies in the supermarket (or, in Hebrew, the "Sooper").  The vegetables there are overpriced, unripe (and possibly rotten), flavorless, and generally fairly equivalent to what you might get in the US. 
Have you shopped in a yarkan? What are your favorite Israeli fruits and vegetables?

*Correction: people tell me that a "yarkan" is technically the person selling the veggies, not the store. So for the record, I've never actually been, er, "in" our local yarkan. 


Oops... I may have spoken too soon...

Last night snow fell all over Israel (though not here in the Krayot)... check out Yediot Ahronot for some amazing pictures: http://www.ynet.co.il/articles/0,7340,L-3844235,00.html

(The captions are classic: "C'mo b'Europa!" "Choref amiti"-- Just like Europe! Real winter!


Eat your heart out, Punxsutawney Phil!

I grew up only about an hour away from Punxsutawney, PA, home of the famous groundhog who pops up out of the ground each February 2nd and predicts six more weeks of winter. (Some Israeli, somewhere, is going, "פנקסטווני פיל? Why an elephant?") My little sister and I would always look outside at the February landscape consisting of various shades of brown and hope that this year spring would come early, but it never did. Even if the groundhog didn't see his shadow.

So I get great pleasure in tormenting all of you US-bound readers with you these pictures of Israel I took today at a nearby national park (Ein Afek)-- this is where I go jogging three mornings a week. I know, I'm lucky. The red and white flowers (calaniot and rakefot) bloom all winter, but in the past few weeks we've started to see spring flowers as well...

Above: I found a little turtle among the rakefot (cyclamen) and the clover
Above: I wonder if this is one of those kosher grasshoppers mentioned in the Torah?

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