When I first set foot in Tel-Aviv in 1997, I was scared to death for the first three weeks of my two years stay over. Anytime I had to progress into the hectic traffic while driving my car I always made sure that at no time I would drive alongside with a bus or any kind of public transportation - for fear of a possible suicide bombing and the collateral effects on nearby vehicles or pedestrians.
Before going to work in the morning I anticipated all the possibilities - that during the explosion of a bomb planted in an autobus my body would be dismantled, blown into pieces and that there would be not enough flesh and bones left for a decent burial in spite of the commendable efforts of the "Zaka" (1) people to recover whatever would be left after and explosion. Living in Tel-Aviv, one has to adapt, and after an initial and fearful period, no newcomer is surprised anymore to face every now and then people bearing arms, concealed or openly, or using public transportion with a fatalistic approach, hoping that "Ha-Shem" (2) will grant His protection for the day's work and for commuting.
With the increase of the traffic - and the decrease of my diminishing patience - I had taken, a while ago, the decision of using my car only when it was strictly necessary - after weighing the pros and cons in order to achieve a satisfactory decision. There are several factors that need to be taken in consideration. Is there a strike? Is it raining? How many drunk Russians may be begging at crossroads to get Vodka money? Am I to drive in an orthodox neighborhood? Will there be a parking place where I go? Will the neighborhood be made of small and intricate narrow streets? All the kind of questions that any responsible driver would face in any city of the world where traffic can be as erratic as the behavior of the inhabitants.
Using public transportation in Tel Aviv appeared to be the best possible solution … at least did I think that when I started using the bus. I remember my first experience riding an "Egged" (3) vehicle from Ramat Aviv on the way to the Kyria district. The bus driver was a young man who had been raised in the United States, not far from Indianapolis, and had broight with him, over here, driving habits which would be better used if on a race track than in one of the Tel Aviv avenues. It took us seven minutes to cover the route when the standard time indicated approximately nineteen minutes.
The bus was light with commuters at this time of the day, so was the traffic. When I got off the bus at my destination and profusely thanked the almighty for sparing my life, it took me a good fifteen minutes and a lot of effort to calm my heartbeat - and I decided that I would not use the bus anymore by fear of dying at a young age.
I then turned my attention to a safer way of commuting in the city - taxi.
Except for Germany, where it is considered as a "standard," Tel-Aviv has the second highest concentration of German-manufactured taxicabs. Don't even try to guess why - don't even assume that running a Taxi company is a business that will make you filthy rich and that you will have enough money to buy yourself a few Mercedes-Benz -250. Just remember three words - World War Two - associated with one other word - compensation - and let your memory and intelligence associate these words together.
Cabbies are known the world over to have a tendency for being dishonest and often abusive. They have this very magic trait of immediately distinguishing the native from the visitor or the tourist. If dealing with the natives they will not attempt any outright robbery, while visitors from out of town or tourists (generally identified by their total ignorance of the native language, Hebrew) will often be subjected to all kinds of evil Taxi-Driver's ways.
Tel Aviv cabbies are no exception - unless you state very clearly that you are the brother-in-law of the guy who heads the Cab license commission, or that, as a foreign expert in Air Transport (my very own status - at least this is was I am suppose to be) - you wine and dine everyday with the prime minister, the minister of Tourism and the police superintendent.
The tricks are no different from those used by cabbies the world over. Riding a cab in Tel-Aviv, your choice is by the meter or off the meter. One can loose or win a few shekels. Off the meter rates are agreed upon. The driver may be out of luck as he can get stuck in the traffic and loose both time and patience. Off the meter rates will, however, trigger a willingness from the driver to try alternate roads, away from major traffic, which has one good side - discovering unknown and silent neighborhoods full of cats, grandmothers with grandchildren and birds in the trees joyfully singing along as spring is finally back.
Tel Aviv cabbies are talkative when in a good mood - it all depends which team won last night's basketball game.
When riding a cab, you need to check you options very cautiously, as one thing leads to another and your immediate mental and financial future may be affected, one way or the other.
The first option is to state very clearly that you are a tourist and start the conversation by saying in English, German, Russian, Amahraic (*) or French, the basic equivalent of - "I know you are a crook and you will steal my money, and if you do, just know that I will call the police - and I have your license number already written on the palm of my hand… now take me to the Hilton."
He will take you there and you will probably end up feeling bad, with no guarantee that you will have even paid the right fare.
The second option is to pull out your recently issued Israeli passport and in your still hesitant Hebrew (if you are a Ole Chadah (4)), something like this - "ani rotzeh lalechet le malone Hilton bevakasha."
You will eventually get there, the driver will start to ask you all kinds of question in English and you will have to justify your presence in Israel, go over your ancestry, tell stories about the Shtetl your grandparents came from (5) - and you will be convinced that you have made the right decision by coming to Israel, but the fare will be thirty Shekels over what the meter will say!
The third option is reserved for the seasoned Israelis - providing the destination to the driver, going off the meter, starting a conversation on mobile telephone and asking for a receipt at the end of the fare, whatever receipt that is that will satisfy both your accountant and the driver who has a large quantity of unclaimed receipts from previous fares stashed away in a metal box and does not mind making you his accomplice, since everybody is always running to make a buck.
There is however an other choice which should be taken in consideration - the "sherout" (6) .
A remnant of the old socialist days, the "sherout" is a collective taxi which can take onboard between nine and twelve people - depending on the size of the people, their degree of orthodoxy (7), or obesity, as well as their willingness to eventually end up sitting in the back of the van with as much space as a sardine in tin can. The usual price is about five Shekels. Sherout are in fact mini-busses, privately operated, following established route along which people can "flag" them to get onboard.
When climbing in the vehicle, one simply needs to indicate at what point of the route one wants to alight. Any good "sherout" diver will operate his vehicle with the radio on and Judeo-Hispanic or Greco-Judaic music at full blast. Music of Ahkenaz origin (8) seems to be a no-go. No Yiddish songs are ever available, and no Polish or Hungarian melodies are ever heard. Too bad - if one does not like Sephardic music, one should not ride the Sherout. Period.
Would this mean that Ashekenaz population is ostracized? Are we (the Ashkenazim) marginal people? Could there be segregation between communities and no one ever talked about? Is it time that I bring the matter up with my friends in the government?
May be I should discuss this issue with my brother-in-law. He heads the Cab license commission at the Tel-Aviv city hall, remember?
(1) Zaka - a religious association tasked with the atrocious duty of recovering bodily parts after terrorist attacks or explosions. Zaka members are seen on all the newsreels related to terror attacks in Israel .They usually wear a beard and Kippa, and drag along plastic bags or containers used to recover the bits and pieces of the victims.
(2) Ha-Shem (the Name ) we all know who he is… or is not .
(3) Egged - one of the two bus companies ploughing the Tel-Aviv area and Israel as a whole
(4) Ole Chadash (pronounced Oleh Radash) - a new immigrant
(5) Shtetl , a poor and desolated village in Galicia or anywhere in eastern Europe where people lived miserable lives, ate potatoes, suffered under oppression ,were victimized, confronted to progroms, and hoped for a better life during all of their life, until they finally emigrated to United States, other places in Europe, and for the visionaries and the courageous - Palestine!
(6) Sherout - the word Sherout means basically "service" - Sherout taxis are a yellow color and often driven by lunatic drivers of Shepardic or Russian origin.
(7) Sherout cabs are not necessarily compatible for orthodox male Jews who may have to take a seat close to a woman. Woman as we know are not "necessarily pure" and therefore seating close to a woman may be "dangerous" or "risky" - not even taking in consideration that if the Orthodox man who has decided, however, to ride close to a woman is carrying milk, as the milk could get spoilt (who knows?)
(8) Ashkenazi - Jewish population of Eastern Europe origin, as opposed to the Sephardic population, which is of North African origin, and the Middle East. There are many cultural differences between both communities, although united by a common faith. There is a lot to say about the specific traditions of each community, including their respective behavior when on a beach, queuing up at the bank or shopping in a supermarket.
Copyright © 2007 - Sylvain Ubersfeld
Last updated Saturday, March 10, 2007, 10:30 pm Pacific Time
All text and photos, unless otherwise noted, Copyright © 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007 - Alan M. Pavlik