Tag Archives: Freier

On yer bike: The myth of the caring Israeli society?

I have not made the most auspicious of starts to the New Year.

Perhaps I am in some way to blame, having taken my bike out on the afternoon of Rosh Hashanah . . . though I don’t really believe that He would have sent those brothers – one aged 14, the other around 10 – to crash their large korkinet (electric scooter) into me, head-on, on the bicycle path near the Mandarin Hotel on the Tel Aviv/Herzliya border.

The boys were riding the korkinet (resembling the one pictured, though with larger, fatter tires) together – little brother standing in front of big one, both without helmets – on the wrong half of the path (their left), heading north; while I was on the right (in both senses) side, cycling in the opposite direction. My front wheel (photographed below) totally buckled under the impact with theirs.

Following a knee-jerk “Atem meshuga’im?!” (Are you crazy?!), I surprised even myself with the speed of my composure-recovery time: “You are just kids,” I comforted the boys, who, while unhurt, were in visible shock from the instantaneous haematoma protruding like a golf ball from my right shin.

A long walk back to Jaffa – or, indeed, to anywhere – was clearly not an option. “Just call your father, and ask him to drop me home . . . oh yes, and tell him to bring some ice!” I was thoroughly enjoying my new found civility.

“I’ll take you part of the way,” said the boys’ father, Amir, on arrival on the scene – my bike still sprawled across the path – some seven or eight minutes later, “we’ve got guests coming in an hour.”

As it was, the 40-something couldn’t fit my bike into the boot of his snazzy BMW – just when I could have done with a 4×4! – and refused to risk scratching the cream leather seats in its rear; and he eventually drove us, boot open, the few hundred metres to his plush apartment complex (the boys returning on their unscathed korkinet), where he instructed the concierge to phone for a cab.

The aftermath

As we sat and awaited the taxi’s arrival, and still revelling in my bonhomie, I reassured Amir – who seemed like a decent enough chap – that I wouldn’t make a big deal of the incident, or of my injury, but “If [he] could just replace the wheel” (I own an expensive-ish bike, and feared that a new rim could set me back 500 shekels plus).

“We’ll settle it next week,” Amir reassured me. And, after debating the chag (holiday) fare with the cabby, he handed over the reduced one – of 100 shekels – for me to be driven home. Saving my number – he preferred this to giving me his – on his phone as I got in, Amir’s parting words were: “I assure you, I will make sure this never happens again.” I repeated to him that I had done far worse as a boy, and that he shouldn’t be too harsh on either of his.

Googling his full name – which he had provided, when asked, in the course of our conversation – I discovered Amir, who had said he was “in property,” to be a senior executive and shareholder at a leading Israeli investment house.

All that was on the Thursday afternoon. I didn’t go straight to A&E because, with my mother expecting me for Yom Tov dinner, I feared that it would be seriously understaffed. I had also once suffered a similar-looking injury playing football. So, I satisfied myself with a phone call to a doctor-colleague, who informed me that there was nothing that could be done anyway, and that I should just keep the haematoma well iced (the shin is still bruised and sore, some three weeks later, and I have been sent for an X-ray and ultrasound).

I was still somewhat surprised, disappointed even, that it took Amir until the Sunday morning – three days after the incident – to call and check on the injury caused by his children, though also by his lack of adequate supervision of them (I knew that, if the boot had been on the other foot, I would have called that very evening). I was in a meeting with my boss at the time, and whispered to Amir that I would call him back, which I did every day until the Wednesday, when the clearly overworked executive finally found the time to call again. He enquired about the state of my leg, but was extremely careful to offer no apology, just assuring me that he would no longer allow the boys to ride on the korkinet together.

Seeing as the phone call was clearly going nowhere, I decided to bring up the subject of the wheel. “I walked up and down Hashmonaim [Tel Aviv’s bicycle shop street] for an hour on Monday [not wishing to cause Amir too much expense, I had] and found the cheapest possible replacement, the odd wheel from a set. It cost 250 shekels [just under £45]. Where should I send the receipt?”

There followed a long, awkwardish silence . . . and then, “We should each pay half.”

Even amongst the rich tapestry of Israeli chutzpah, with which I have become all too familiar, I thought I was hearing things.

“Atah loh mitbayesh?!” (Aren’t you ashamed?!)

“You have to take your share of responsibility, too, for what happened.”

Naturally, if I had known that two boys were riding a motorized vehicle towards me in the wrong lane, and with little control, I would have got off the bicycle path altogether. But to equate our relative culpability was outrageous. Either Amir’s sons had fed him a load of porkies, or – more likely, to my mind – knowing that there were no witnesses, he just knew that he could get away with it. And I could only imagine the shtook Amir would have seen to it that I would have been in had the roles been reversed, with me being the one on the korkinet.

I told Amir to keep his 250 shekels, but that I would now be going to the police. And following a thinly-veiled threat – that “I shouldn’t misinterpret [his] [wait for it . . . ] softness”!  – I terminated the call.

Always one to feel guilty, however (even when I am far from), I still wished to resolve the matter civilly, and I sent Amir a text message, that evening, suggesting that he, instead, sponsor my upcoming charity bike ride (for which I had informed him that I was in training). Numerous folk, on hearing the sorry tale, have opined that Israelis, however wrong they might be in any given situation, never want to be – or, perhaps more to the point, to be seen to be – the freier. So I had given Amir a way out. Needless to say, he hasn’t taken it.

Perhaps I am too sensitive (and naive?) a soul, but the whole incident, to my surprise, has filled me with real sadness, saying so much, for me, about the current state of Israeli society and all too many of its citizens.

Of course it is “not everybody,” but what I can say with some degree of confidence is that the bollocks that we are often fed – that Israelis may be rude and arrogant, but that, when push comes to shove (how appropriate the idiom!), they will be there for you – is now at least, in the main, exactly that (i.e., bollocks): Whether in business, professional relationships, ‘queues,’ on the roads, in restaurants, shops or hotels, or with their children or dogs, my sad experience and conclusion – and that of most people (natives included) to whom I have related the unfortunate tale (some even expressed their surprise that I had expected anything more) – is that too many Israelis these days just couldn’t give a flying felafel about anybody or anything but themselves and theirs. It was once, I am told, very different.

Several days following the incident, I happened to be walking up my former happy hunting ground, Rothschild, as the individuals dressed up here as police officers were evicting the last tent dwellers from the Boulevard. And, after months of not taking the protest too seriously (see here), I now kind of recognized the attitude that has driven so many other Israelis – perhaps the ‘weaker,’ less ambitious and/or aggressive of the species – to despair.

My guess (and it is just a guess) is that Amir was an above-average soldier, who served in an IDF combat unit, perhaps even reaching the rank of officer. And as with a former friend – who, on the basis of such a CV (and all the while considering himself a noble human being), believes that it is just fine for him to screw other men’s wives – this (like the big-paying job he landed on military record, rather than intellectual/academic ability) gives Amir the arrogance to believe that he can do whatever he wishes in civil life, shitting on any poor bugger unfortunate enough to cross his path. (And, if this was how Amir saw fit to act in this situation, one can only imagine what he must be doing with client money!)

Naming and shaming  Amir – surname, position, company – has, of course, been hugely tempting. But this post is not the tool of my revenge. Perhaps, however, Amir will read it – I will forward him the link – and at least attempt to comprehend why I felt compelled to write it.

Perhaps, too, he will try to bring up those nice – and they were – boys into adults that this country can be proud of . . . rather than individuals, like their father, seemingly without moral compass.

Chag sameyach!

[http://www.justgiving.com/mike-isaacson/ . . . only 88 quid to go!]


Be a wise buyer, not a foreign freier: a guide to the world of Israeli real estate

melchett mike is about to join that quirky list of institutions (London Irish, Scottish and Welsh rugby clubs spring to mind) whose names no longer accurately describe them. After 12 memorable years, I have decided to cash in on the Tel Aviv property boom and to partially wipe out a loan which, due to rising Israeli interest rates, had started to disturb my sleep even more than the post-midnight Melchett mopeds.

Having purchased and renovated a few properties here, I had considered myself relatively streetwise – and compared to the oleh chadash, fresh off his Nefesh B’Nefesh flight, I probably still am – but the shenanigans of the last month or so have provided an uncomfortable reminder of just how naive I remain as to the shady goings-on in the world of Israeli real estate.

And to invalidate the accusation often levelled at me by certain former teachers at Hasmonean High School for Boys (and even Girls), that I am a good-for-nothing coward who can only ridicule their poor, defenceless (now at least!) ex-colleagues, I thought I would do something for the general good: provide a list of things to beware of/look out for when entering the minefield that is the Israeli property market . . .

Agents. However much they may attempt to appear honest and decent– essentially, by insisting on making ingratiating small talk in crap English – don’t trust a single one of them: they will sell their own mothers to do a deal (though they are no different from most of their UK counterparts in that respect: it was once proposed to me by an agent from a large office in Golders Green that, in exchange for a George Graham envelope, he would “make sure” that I secured a property ahead of a rival bidder).

In spite of insisting that they will not – even cannot – accept any less than their “standard” 2% commission, most Israeli metavchim (agents) will eventually agree to 1.5% for a purchase (and 1% for a sale). Don’t waste your time arguing the 2% when signing their paperwork – most will be inflexible at that stage – but rather wait until you find something that you like, and then tell them that you are not prepared to pay more than 1.5% (for an expensive property – especially if you haven’t had them schlepping around with you for three years! – you may even be able to get them down to 1-1.25%): unless there is another buyer in the wings, or they have long-term exclusivity on the property, they are unlikely to want to risk losing the deal. (Most things in Israel – from fruit and veg in the shuk to interest in the bank – are entirely negotiable: most memorably, I once overheard Avi, a Rothschild kiosk regular, express his bewilderment that a Fifth Avenue (New York) shop assistant would not, after he had purchased a pair of shoes, throw in a pair of socks and/or shoe polish!)

And don’t be a freier after a transaction, either. Following the sale of Melchett, and the agent being handsomely compensated (for what turned out to be a few days’ work), I phoned to thank him. His response? “Don’t you think I deserve a bonus?” “Be’tachat shelcha” (in/on your backside), I replied (perhaps foolhardily, in an area as homo-friendly as central Tel Aviv). There is an extremely prevalent “shitat matzliyach” – have a go/it’s worth a try/if you don’t ask, you don’t get – mentality in Israel. And it is one that is very difficult to come to terms with for those of us who emanate from countries where we were used to dealing with people who had both a sense of personal self-respect and professional pride.

Builders. If you are planning a shiputz (renovation) of your new property, do your homework: meet several kablanim (builders) on direct recommendation, request to see jobs they have done, talk to former customers (not in the kablan’s presence! One recently gave as a reference a woman who told me not to use him!), and obtain quotes based on a detailed architect’s plan of the proposed work. From my experience, discrepancies between quotes (relating to an identical plan) can be huge.

Get the kablan you ultimately select to sign a contract – even a simple one, in English if necessary – setting out your expectations, and payment in stages. Hold back a sizable sum (perhaps as much as a quarter of the total) until he has hung the last picture on your wall (it is remarkable what kablanim will do in order to get their hands on that final cheque!): getting your shiputz completely, and cleanly, finished is the most difficult task of all.

It is quite common for Americans (with more bucks than sense) to hand over the keys to their new holiday homes to kablanim, to disappear back to the US, and to merely – without even employing an architect – require a finished product upon their return to Israel. As a result, there are many kablanim, in Jerusalem especially, who, upon hearing a foreign accent, will pick a global price for your shiputz out of thin air, i.e., without seeing a plan – indeed, they will often tell you that “You don’t need an architect” – or even understanding what it is that you want to achieve. Should you encounter such a kablan, run a mile! Otherwise, you will end up paying a lot more for your shiputz, and not even know what it is that you have received for your money.

But it is not just agents and builders that one has to be wary of here . . .

Architects. When your nice, obliging Israeli architect – or, seeing as this has turned into a Hebrew lesson, adrichal – does what he or she has contracted to do, i.e., takes you shopping for flooring and sanitary ware, etc, don’t forget that, almost without doubt, he will be receiving a healthy percentage of your total bill as an incentive for him to bring more clients to the store. If you ask him about this, he will either deny receiving anything or spin you some yarn about how his  percentage is paid by the shop owner out of a special account, which means that you, the client, loses nothing. This is a crock of shit. Whatever sum is received by your architect could – indeed, should– be knocked off your bill instead. And, if you are paying your architect a fee, you might well (like me) ask yourself why he should be profiting further – and without any transparency – at your expense.

The solution? After your architect has taken you to his favoured retailer – often the most expensive in town (what does he care? Anyway he is spending your money, and the larger your bill, the larger his kickback!) – and you have obtained a written quote, find a store with better prices (your kablan might help you with this) and insist that your architect accompanies you there. He cannot refuse. Of course there is nothing to stop him (as I recently discovered, fortunately in time) taking the owner to one side and demanding a percentage (10% in my case), and threatening that, if he doesn’t get it, he will instruct you not to buy there. Though, if you lay down the ground rules with the store owner from the outset – letting them know that you are wise to what goes on here, and that you are the one who should be receiving any available discount – you minimize the danger of getting ripped off.

Lawyers. From my experience, no more more trustworthy necessarily than agents. A Jerusalem ‘lawyer’ last week demanded “a few thousand shekels” from me for another lawyer, “with connections” (unspecified), to put straight a significant oversight in services for which I had already paid. The fact that said ‘lawyer’ unashamedly informed me that he “only takes cash” (and that he was recommended by an ex-Hasmo!) should, perhaps, have been sufficient warning (to quote the great Ivan Marks, “It is always the frum ones”). My Tel Aviv lawyer is now resolving the problem, gratis.

You should not have to pay a lawyer any more than 0.5% on a purchase or sale (though, again, for a pricey property – perhaps in the region of 3 million shekels plus – you may be able to get them down to 0.3% . . . especially if you make it known to them that you have other options!)

And an important rider to all of the above: even if you think that you have absorbed it all, or knew it already, bear in mind that there could always be some “combina” (“arrangement,” usually shady) that you are totally unaware of. Be wary of everyone in the world of Israeli real estate: most of them are “at it.” In fact, the more someone attempts to reassure you that he is not looking to profit at your expense – or, at least, any more than you have already contracted for him to – the more suspicious you should be!

Finally, do your homework, and don’t be shy to ask questions of several competitors in the same field: from my experience, being a nudnik (nuisance) is the only hope that you have of discovering what is really going on here.

And yes, this is all, of course, terribly disappointing for the oleh who moved here out of a sense of idealism. But the sooner you accept the reality of life in Israel, the sooner you will feel at home here (even if you never wish to become one of them!) Be’hatzlacha.

[See also Israelis, agents of our own demise? I will be more than happy to provide details of professionals and/or stores with whom I have been satisfied (relatively, at least!) to anyone who may be interested (and without receiving anything in return, from you . . . or them!) Just comment below, leaving your e-mail address (viewable only by me) if you prefer the correspondence to be in confidence. And please comment, too, if you happen to hear of a Tel Aviv apartment for rent – I have to be out of Melchett by August 20th – to help me avoid becoming an unwilling volunteer in addressing Anglo underrepresentation in the tents . . . and this blog becoming rothschild mike!]


Taking the SMS: Avi the Texting Masseur

Just when you think that the chutzpah can’t get any worse, the Israeli will usually surprise you . . .

During a massage, last week, in her holiday home in Herzliya Pituach – the hot destination, these days, for British “Deckchair Zionists” – my friend Donna’s blissful indulgence was intermittently disturbed by a faint clicking sound.

She ignored it.

Opening her eyes, however, towards the end of the one-hour session, Donna caught her masseur, Avi, with one hand on her foot and the other typing a text (SMS) message on his mobile phone.

Now, call me old-fashioned, but I would say that a masseur on 300 shekels (50 British pounds) an hour can reasonably be expected to use both hands!

The incident reminded me of a university flatmate whose girlfriend, in the middle of doing something to him that he could not do to himself – would we males ever leave the house? – looked up to find him channel-hopping with the TV remote. (In his defence, there was footie on the box . . . but she gave him a mouthful anyway. The cheeky chappie, meanwhile, eventually migrated to his natural habitat . . . Israel.)

Such chutzpadik multitasking was also exhibited by an Israeli first date of mine who, on arrival at the pretty garden café handpicked by me – and having evidently resolved that I was not as attractive as I considered her – insisted on sitting inside, so that she would not miss any of the goings-on in the Israeli Big Brother house.

Indeed, the Israeli is a multitasker nonpareil, who can, for instance, smoke, devour garinim (sunflower seeds) and cuff the kids and/or missus . . . all while driving at excess speed, with one foot on the dashboard, cursing down his mobile and gesticulating at other road users.

While now – having lived here for over ten years – conditioned to Israeli chutzpah (and not averse to dishing out some of my own when required), I am also far less likely to put up with it . . .

Overhearing, in my local hummus place on Sheinkin, that I was flying back to London the following morning, an Israeli woman who I know from the area enquired whether I would mind taking something for her son, sojourning in Wood Green (of all places).

“Of course not,” I foolishly replied.

The woman scuttled away, returning a quarter of an hour later not with the latest Amos Oz novel or Arik Einstein disc, but with a plastic bag – from the makolet (supermarket) over the road – weighing several kilos and bursting with family-sized bottles of Osem tomato ketchup.

“He is used to it,” she declared, as if that should have been of interest to me.

Some years earlier, I would have been so taken aback by such chutzpah that my only reaction would have been momentary paralysis, an awkward smile, and a hasty unpacking of my suitcase to accommodate the condimentally-challenged nincompoops. And I may even have thanked her for selecting me for the honour.

But no longer.

“I’m not taking that,” I laughed, almost contemptuously. “I am already overweight.” I wasn’t. “Anyway, what’s wrong with Heinz?!”

What could she say? She had been outchutzpah’d.

You see, it is just that on encountering foreign accents – usually accompanied by indications of (relative) meekness – many of the natives see a flashing “Freier!” (sucker) sign.

And not to be taken advantage of here, one, regrettably, must become like them.

Avi “the Texting Masseur” no doubt calculated that – unlike his Israeli clients – Donna would not mind him sending SMS messages while he was supposed to be giving her a massage . . . and that, even if she did, the English lady would not say a word.

And he was, at least, half right.


The Buyer’s a Freier: Shopping, Israel-Style

Most people will be familiar with the doctrine “Let the buyer beware (or, for those who didn’t attend a crap school, Caveat emptor). Retailers in Israel, however, have significantly extended the scope of the doctrine and renamed it “The buyer is a freier” (Yiddish-derived Hebrew for “sucker”).

I am destined never to get fit. After getting into working out for the first time in my life, my local gym, on Sheinkin Street, recently closed following a serious fire. Apparently, a female member (who said “of course”?!) – whose time might have been better spent on mental exercises – left her towel on the sauna heater.

Now, knowing Israel and its natives as I do, approximately a week after the conflagration – and with no sign of the gym reopening – I decided, to be on the safe side, to cancel the direct debit (after notifying the gym). And, sure enough, it continued collecting payments from those who hadn’t.

The gym reopened last week, when I phoned to renew my membership. “Naturally,” I informed the irritatingly camp manager Gidi, “I expect to be credited with the one month I had frozen” (earlier in the year, whilst I was abroad).

“Of course not,” he squeaked, “you cancelled the contract.”

I started explaining the contractual principles of consideration and frustration to him – that, following the fire, I was receiving absolutely zilch for my payments, and that the contract had now become impossible to perform.

When, however, the squeaking started up again – and sensing the onset of a rage which might have been wrongly perceived as homo-, rather than “no one can really be this camp-”, phobic – I requested the details of the gym owner.

Eddie was an altogether more serious proposition. And, sitting opposite him in his office, I tried a less legalistic tack, testing whether an Israeli could comprehend the principle that “The customer is always right.” What works in Brent Cross, however, will not necessarily on Sheinkin. And Eddie merely added insult to injury by stating that I would also have to pay a fresh joining fee.

It is as if the whole Israeli retail industry is run on the principles of the shuk (market). It is quite common in these parts, even in large chain stores, to haggle over prices. And, on Thursday, my kiosk friend Avi described the bewilderment of a Fifth Avenue (New York) shop assistant, who – after Avi had purchased a pair of shoes – could not comprehend why he was demanding a gratis pair of socks and/or shoe polish.

The Israeli attitude towards customers has caused me to “lose it” on several occasions since my Aliyah (and I relate such not out of pride, but in the interests of authenticity) . . .

I lost my Israeli consumer ‘virginity’ towards the end of the 1990s on a well-deserving Dizengoff Street kiosk owner, who refused to believe – me . . . an Englishman! – that The Jerusalem Post I had purchased from him merely an hour earlier had its TV guide section missing.

His temerity so incensed me that I picked up another copy and ran for it. He gave chase, but I ended up losing him in the garden of some side street (for many months following, however, I had to take detours to avoid passing him).

Then, last year, in two separate incidents on King George Street – and provoked by unbelievable rudeness – I called a hardware store owner a “Polani” (Pole), and hurled a frozen yogurt back at the woman who had only just served it to me.

You are probably thinking that I need to attend anger management classes. And perhaps I do. But when you have to deal with such attitudes on a daily basis, the odd outburst is inevitable for all but the most placid of souls (and I have never been described as that).

I leave my favourite Israeli shopping story, however, till last. Walking out of a shop on Jerusalem’s Ben Yehuda Street, and inspecting the roll of fax paper that he had just purchased, my cousin Marc realised that it was the wrong size.

Making an immediate about-turn, and politely requesting that the shop owner exchange it for the correct one, he was greeted with the now legendary reply, “Where do you think you are . . . in America?!”

One thing is for sure – the term “retail therapy” does not have its origins in Israel.