I’d been bracing myself for this moment – the moment the veterinarian would announce the total we owed.
Our beloved calico cat, Lucy, had been run over and after five days of hospitalization, surgery, an IV, a feeding tube, and excellent care, she was being released to me with eight cans of food that cost 11 shekels each.
The young woman who explained to me how to inject the mixture of food and water, stirred to exactly the right consistency, with the syringe into the feeding tube, was clear and patient and, after demonstrating, wrote down the exact amount of food and water she was to get each day along with a feeding schedule.
I took for granted that I managed this and every other transaction with the vet’s office with no problem, with a command of the language and the culture that allows me to live comfortably in Israel after ten years.
So, when the receptionist told me the most concrete fact of the whole ordeal, how could it be that my language skills failed me?
I’d heard about someone who paid 12,000 shekels for their dog’s surgery. I was prepared. She made the final additions to the bill. My heart was racing, we’d been in denial, only worried about the cat’s survival. For the past eight years Lucy has been the family’s source of comfort. These have been hard years and as we sat together at dinner on Shabbat after the accident, we realized just how much we all receive from Lucy. She gives us unconditional love and we love her back that same way.
I had my credit card in my hand and I hear the receptionist say, “The total is 320,000 shekels.” (That’s $88,888.00 at today’s exchange rate.)
I was stunned. I couldn’t move. She sees my shock and says, “let me deduct one day of hospitalization.” Of course, this couldn’t possibly help the fact that my account is already in minus, but it was a nice gesture.
Then I tried to protest – not understanding why they didn’t give us a clue that it would be this much. She showed me the documentation that we approved the feeding tube and the surgery. I told her no one had prepared us to deal with such a sum. Suddenly I was losing it, asking them how this could be, getting angry, even yelling at one nurse who, in typical Israeli fashion, suggested that it was my fault for not knowing how much it would be.
Then the receptionist told me again the total amount owed. And this time I understood Hebrew.
“The total is 3,200.00 shekels.” I looked at her and it sunk in that I’d misunderstood and then I started to laugh and cry, feeling so relieved and so stupid and the people with the dogs in the waiting room laughed with me.
But I could not stop laughing. They offered me water: I asked for a glass of wine. Just so has it that the vet also owns a boutique winery we’d been to a few weeks ago which is something that would happen only in Israel.
When I mentioned to the receptionist that this reminded me of the tale of the man who complained to the rabbi that his house was too small and the rabbi told him to bring a goat home… then a cow, etc. and when he took them out he’d feel how big his house is… I knew that it is also only in Israel that the vet’s receptionist would know the classic Jewish story “It could always be worse”.
I was so happy to pay 3,200 shekels that I didn’t care a bit about the parking ticket I found on my car when I got there with the cat. Who understands the parking signs here anyway?
After ten years in the country and more years of knowing Hebrew, you can function at work, navigate the systems, watch the news, and read the newspaper, but sometimes you’re still just a new immigrant who can’t understand how much you owe the vet.
In August of 1995 my husband and three-year old daughter and I arrive in Jerusalem for a year’s sabbatical and study. From the time we landed we were caught up in the tense atmosphere of the city and entire country which was highly intensified for us when my husband’s classmate from the Melton Senior Educator’s program, Joan Davenny z”l was killed when a suicide bomber blew up the bus on which she was riding to attend their first week of class.
At the end of my morning run I saw the annual scene- traffic backed up during morning rush hour while municipal workers blocked the road in order to trim the palm trees in the median. I approached the crew’s supervisor who stood across the road from them barking out directions. ” Why, davka, at this hour do you do this every year?” I asked him. “Ain Breirah– we don’t have a choice,” he replied which is one of a handful of standard Israeli replies to absurd questions such as mine. As I continued to pursue the issue, he ignored me. Cars were backed up as far as I could see, their drivers already calculating how late they would arrive at work. I ran off.
As I rounded the corner into the home decorations showroom of Israel’s Netanya IKEA, I almost ran my cart into a man struggling with his cart. His was the kind designed for carrying big items that he’d need to build at home- desks, beds, bookcases, maybe even an entire brand new kitchen. Mine was the supermarket shopping cart type, but it was already overflowing. The man and I looked at each other in shared sympathy, his eyes caught mine right before I almost rammed him with my cart.