Jewish Journal

Millennium Countdown Israeli Style

by Helen Schary Motro

Posted on Dec. 30, 1999 at 7:00 pm

Israel has never seen anything this glitzy. True, there have been neon menorahs for Chanukah and light bulbs outlining Israel's numerical age on Independence Days. But this is another ball game altogether. Hundreds of thousands of people driving on the Israeli freeway this week have looked up at an electric millennium welcome reminiscent of Times Square.

A high voltage millennium countdown is being beamed over Tel-Aviv in lights visible 20 miles away. High up on the side of the glass Azrieli skyscraper in letters several stories tall: "New -- Millennium -- 1999 - 2000." Then the message switches to tick off number of days, hours, minutes and seconds until the fresh century blasts off.

As befits Tel-Aviv's new internationalist image, the sign alternates between Hebrew and English. So far so good. But as high tech as Israel has become, it is comforting to see that some of the old provincial Israel remains. Remember when an English menu offered "sandvich", "omlit" and "coren flakes"? Well, in the country used to winging it, they still haven't learned to spell. A week before the new year, it was pointed out that the Azrieli tower sign had left out one of the two n's in "millennium".

Embarrassed officials claimed that there was no room on the building to fit in that extra letter. At first they planned to just leave it, in the hallowed Israeli tradition that says approximate is good enough. They soon realized this might be bad press for a country trying to project an image of scientific and technological precision, a society which every day sees new corporations listed on international stock exchanges, a land which routinely pats itself on the back as stiff competition for Silicon Valley. So what was Azrieli's proposed solution? Erase the English message altogether.

Those who had enjoyed their brief new year's greeting in English sadly prepared to see it disappear.

But like so many things in Israel, people here didn't take "no" for an answer. A no parking sign? So leave your car on the sidewalk. No dogs allowed on the beach? Then wait until the lifeguards go home. No cellphones permitted in hospitals? Even the doctors ignore those signs. No smoking in the airport? Just try to point that out to returning Israelis lighting up as soon as they clear customs. No talking in the library? The librarians don't consider themselves covered by the rule.

"No" in Israel is a relative term, not an absolute. Even when a teacher says no to the class, it's actually the first step of a negotiating process. From kindergarten on, an Israeli child knows that "no" is flexible. Parking lot posts a "no vacancy" sign? There is always room to squeeze just one more car in on the intake ramp -- never mind that it partially blocks the elevator. If people can find space to squeeze through, that's good enough.

In short, every "no" in Israel has a foam rubber penumbra, and every red-blooded Israeli knows it.

Anglos (short for the former misnomer "Anglo Saxons" meaning anybody from an English speaking country) have earned the derogatory term "soaps" -- meaning excessively complacent and gullible. An Anglo will naively leave the ticket line in disappointment when the cashier says tickets are all sold out. The Israeli in line behind him is pleased as pie -- he knows that if he stands his ground, argues, cajoles and begs, eventually a pair of "returned" tickets will turn up miraculously in the inside drawer.

This mindset also brings its societal correlative: it is much easier to shoot off a "no" right off the bat -- nobody takes it too seriously anyway. When you say "no" in Israel, "yes" is always the fall-back position.

Lo and behold, when darkness fell the next night there was "Millennium" up in Latin letters lighting the Tel-Aviv skyline once more. A little scrunched together, but intact and spell-checked.

The 24-Hour Jewish 911

Help has arrived. Thanks to a special program funded by the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, callers can get immediate personal and family crisis assistance, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. A social worker at the Jewish Family Service (JFS), a Federation agency, will be on call to give information and assistance at any time.

Callers who reach the Federation's main number after business hours will receive a recorded message with referral numbers for 24 hour emergency assistance. Aside from the JFS number, there is one for Cedars Sinai Medical Center in case of medical emergencies, and a number for urgent press inquiries. It's not 911 -- there's already one of those -- but it truly is the Other 911.

From 8:30 am to 5:30 pm Monday through Thursday, and until 3:30 pm on Friday, the JFS can be reached at (323) 761-8800. After hours, the JFS number is (800) 284-2530. The Federation's main switchboard is (323) 761-8000.

Now, for quick refrigerator magnet reference:

Jewish Federation 24-Hour Line:..(323) 761-8000

JFS Business Hours:....................... (323) 761-8800

JFS After-Hours:..............................(800) 284-2530

-- Rob Eshman, Managing Editor

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