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Balancing act

There's an angel who said to us...

No! Sorry about that. We believe in literal angels, so we mustn't be guilty of using the word as a metaphor. Let's simply say that deep underground in the Cardo (the ancient Roman shopping mall in Jerusalem's Old City) there's a lady who is manageress of a smart gift shop.

It was one of those all-too-frequent days in Israel when business was down to zero because tourists were afraid to visit. But mad dogs and Andersons meant we were there, and we struck up a conversation with the lady, told her we were doing volunteer work for a year, questioned her on life in the Promised Land.

A mine of information she was. (Never suggested we bought anything either. That was nice.) Anyhow, as we left, she said:

'Take a piece of advice. You've come to help Israel. That's wonderful. We all appreciate that. But there's something in the Israeli psyche that'll exploit you till you drop. Set your limits and they'll respect you.'

There was a celestial boinng as she said that. One of those 'this is God speaking' occasions that are folly to ignore, and worth gold to obey.

'Set your limits.'

We hadn't thought of that. But our myriad bosses would hustle us from job to job. 'Just do that - and this - and those.' There were the Mission Impossibles: 'that apartment will only take ten minutes' - when it needed an hour merely to shift a million priceless ornaments and faded photos under the steely glare of the resident Methusaleh before we could begin to splatter paint on the walls.

We had even resorted to quietly vanishing at the end of a working day lest we met another boss with a 'just do this before you go'.

So, in fear and trembling, we set our limits. Said a firm yes or no. Or 'tomorrow at 7.30'. Or even a simple 'it can't be done'. And we saw another side to the Middle East personality; here, politeness and willingness are often considered as weakness. There is a favourite quotation: 'If I am not for myself, who will be for me?'. It affects Israeli society at all levels.

Watch Israeli drivers. Watch the behaviour at a non-tourist hotel buffet lunch. Watch a session at the Knesset - the parliament - and observe the coffee-throwing, fisticuffs, obscenities.

(Parental guidance recommended; don't try this at home.)

Where were we? Oh yes, setting our limits.

Our first 'no' could have been hazardous to our on-going nutrition. One of the kitchen lady boss persons (the one who feeds us) decided the ceiling needed painting. Sounds okay? You should have seen it. Institutional kitchens aren't one vast hall. They're a multiplex of branching caverns. The ceiling is up in the stratosphere, wreathed in clouds of steam, underslung with the spaghetti of water pipes, sprinkler pipes, power cables, phone cables, computer cables.

Being perched on quaking wooden ladders, our heads threaded through alternate scalding and freezing conduits, while below us the hyperactive staff rushed every which way pushing laden trolleys, had the makings of a classic slapstick comedy. It didn't bear translating into real life.


In Hebrew, the dictionaries translate that as 'lo'. They lie. No Israeli ever says 'lo'. The local word for such a positive negative is 'lo-lo-lo-lo-lo' delivered at machine-gun speed, rising in pitch.

We said it, appropriately inflected.

Astonishingly, the erstwhile boss simply shrugged. A simple one-shoulder shrug of resignation, not the expansive full two-handed ethnic shrug of total despair.

And said: 'B'seder'. Okay.

End of problem.

It's a balancing act of course. There's no mileage to be gained at baulking at every job that has difficulties. But we've developed a better communication 'twixt us and them. We're being accepted as human beings in our own right; not bad going in a country where 'the strangers that are within thy gates' - particularly the Arab and Ethiopian minorities - automatically are given the dirty jobs, and 'do-it-yourself' is almost unheard of.

We're becoming real people in a real world. Not trying to impress. If God had wanted better people in this neck of the wood, He'd have sent 'em. So, in computer terms: wysiwyg.

What you see is what you get.

If there's anything godly in us, the locals can see it. If there isn't, they can't. It's one heck of a risk.

Treasure in earthen vessels, style of thing. We provide the awfully earthen vessels. And hope to goodness God's put a few grams of treasure therein. If He hasn't, we're sunk.

Surprisingly, it works.

In Jerusalem, all the peacock pomp of Vatican, Greek Orthodox and Russian Orthodox caricatures of Christianity are regarded with often unconcealed contempt by Israelis. But here and there, individual Christians, warts and all, with no axe to grind, no hidden agenda, make an impact despite all their faults.

Maybe because of all their faults.

Because, that way, God gets the credit.

We're about eleven months into our year in Jerusalem. It'll soon be time to find our way back to New Zealand again. But whatever our future holds, we're not going to be the same people who flew out from Auckland in July 2000.

Oh for a pavlova!

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