Due to the worldwide outbreak of COVID-19, we in Israel are now, by law, “locked down,” a social condition during which everyone keeps his or her distance from others whenever it’s convenient. When inconvenient, however, Israelis invent clever ways to skirt the rules; take the young Israeli couple, for example, who recently married in a supermarket to avoid Israel’s legal limits set upon the size of public gatherings.
Lockdown has naturally affected everyone. A few days ago Marcia and I received an SMS notice from the Israeli postal service. “A package awaits you!” it said. Still not quite accustomed to Israeli humor, I assumed that the option provided in the notice to click on a link and set an appointment for pickup was sincere.
Eight-forty AM. Check. A ten-minute window of opportunity. Understood. I’ll simply arrive at the appointed time and avoid the usually frantic Israeli postal scene.
It was not to be.
The appointment ruse was a great success. I found no room in the post office parking lot. An unexpected crowd of Israelis milled outside of the building, many wearing breathing masks, waiting impatiently.
The real-world process worked like this. Upon arrival, customers were expected to step inside and grab a printed chit from a number dispenser. Then they were to quickly take their virus-fearing rear ends back outside and fend for themselves until called.
While getting my number, I noticed the postal workers inside, several of whom also wore masks, rushing around and spraying disinfectant, sometimes stopping to shout that the entry door must remain closed! Which seemed prudent, except that the closed door prevented the folks outside from viewing the “now serving” numbers inside.
This point in my little vignette seems like the perfect spot at which to revisit the Hebrew word, “balagan.” Most frequently defined as “mess,” the word’s true richness can only be grasped within a situational context, like that morning’s tangible virus fear, tightly closed post office door, and impatient Israelis milling about outside while a cold wind blew.
Speaker one: “Balagan.”
Speaker two, with greater emotion: “Balagan!”
Speaker three, slightly muffled by a mask: “Azeh balagan!” What a mess!
“Balagan,” I agreed, perhaps nodding with too much enthusiasm, so pleased to be engaged in a Hebrew conversation I could handle.
But, after a longish wait—a young lady showed up and, humorously, tried to move to the front of the line because she had an appointment—I got inside and my postal agent immediately refused to give me the package because Marcia was not there with me to pick it up.
Huh? “We are in…” I paused, not knowing how to say lock-down. “And the package is addressed to Cliff or Marcia.”
“It didn’t matter,” my civil servant told me. I would have to come back with my wife.
“Balagan!” I shouted and then, suddenly, I knew by the impressed and respectful glances I received from the postal crew, I had made some progress. I went on in broken Hebrew expressing outrage and, perhaps to make me stop talking, we quickly negotiated a compromise. Marcia would Whatsapp her ID to my phone, I would show it to them, and then, they agreed to allow me, this time only, to take my package home.
Deal done, package in hand, I looked my stressed-out postal clerk squarely in the eye and apologized for my poor language skills. “My Hebrew’s really not very good,” I confessed, as if she had not noticed.
Then, as only Israelis seem able to do with ease, her mood jump-shifted from angry to kind. “Le-at, le-at,” she said, “Slowly, slowly,” her first kind words of the day.
I looked around before walking out. Shouting matches were ongoing at two of the other three windows. When I stepped back outside with my package, those still waiting for their number to appear began shouting, asking me what my number had been. Then they argued among themselves about who would go next.
The Hebrew words in the rainbow image atop this entry read, “We will get through this together.” Of course, I’m sure that we will, but I’m also sure we will do it slowly, slowly.