Illustration: Denis Shifrin
Ariella has the best job in Israel. She is the human voice of Mifal HaPayis, the state-run weekly lottery. Her job is to phone the winners and give them the good news. The conversations are recorded and some are played on the radio as a come-on for potential new subscribers. Ariella is the Israeli version of John Beresford Tipton, the American multimillionaire, who gave away one million dollars each week on the American TV show of the 50s, The Millionaire. The only difference is that he was a fictional character. She is not. I hope she calls me one day.
Let me start at the beginning. I was playing, a little too roughly, with our one-year-old grandson. Our heads collided. We were okay but my glasses weren’t. They got bent out of shape. I had bought them at our local Optica Halperin store. Had they been the sturdy thick-framed glasses that Henry Kissinger wears, I am sure that nothing would have happened. But I had bought the thin, expensive designer-type frames, sensitive to even the slightest touch. When I brought the glasses to the store, the worker said that she would be unable to fix them herself and that she would have to send them to the Halperin central lab in Bnei Brak. It would take about a week to get them back. Or, alternatively, I could go to the lab myself and have them fixed on the spot. Since my reserve pair of glasses was no longer of use to me, I said I’d go myself.
But, as they say, Man proposes, God disposes. Before I was able to go to Bnei Brak, the strangest thing happened. My right foot, alarmingly, swelled up. Now, when it comes to health matters, I tend to panic and see the dark at the end of the tunnel. Fortunately for me, my personal physician (our daughter, Rachel) was in the neighborhood and was able to come over and have a look. I was hoping she’d say, “It’s nothing. I see it every day,” and go home. Unfortunately, her first words were, “Wow, that’s really swollen.” And then, “You’ll have to get it X-rayed.” And then, “You’ll have to stay off your feet for a while.” And then, “You’ll have to keep your foot elevated for the fluid to drain.” And finally, “Three Advils a day should reduce the inflammation.” Oy. How did this happen? The worst part of it all was that I was afraid I’d have to give up my volunteering job at the hospital which I love and which requires a certain amount of walking and standing. Of course, going to Bnei Brak was, for the time being, completely out of the question.
After calling in sick at the hospital, making an appointment for an X-ray in two days’ time, and phoning for an appointment with the orthopedist, I was told that the earliest he could see me was in four weeks! I took to lying on the sofa with my foot elevated. The swelling wasn’t getting any worse but it was in no hurry to subside either. On many days, at about 14:30, the phone would ring. I’d hobble to the kitchen to answer it. “Hello?” I’d say. A delay of a second or two. And then, a booming “Shalom!” and Hasidic music would start playing in the background. I was in no mood for a prerecorded pitch for a donation to a yeshiva. Slam! I’d hang up the phone with a bit too much force and hobble back to the sofa.
I allowed myself one trip out of the apartment a day – to get the mail. It was a mistake. One day there was an official-looking letter from the State of Israel Income Tax Authority. I opened it, fearing the worst. I was right. “Dear Sir/Madam,” it read, “According to our records you have not filed a return for earnings for the year 2012. According to Paragraph X of the Tax Code, a fine of NIS 1,250 per month may be levied for a late return. Please attend to this matter immediately. If you have already filed your return, you may consider this letter null and void. Respectfully, the Income Tax Authority.”
It was true. I hadn’t filed the form. It’s a long story. In short, when my wife retired, she had accrued a certain amount of money from her work place. Some of that money was taxable. To access it, we were advised to go to our local Income Tax Authority office. The clerk, a very nice and helpful man, smilingly explained that we could avoid paying any tax at all on the sum if we spread out our earnings over a two-year period. The only thing was that we’d have to file an income tax return for each of those two years. We should have paid the taxes. Filing tax returns in Israel is very different from filing them in America. In America, every citizen files a return by April 15. It’s routine. Here, it is the rare individual who has to file a return. Consequently, it’s more stressful and more complicated. The clerk told us that it’s nothing. It’s not nothing, especially for people like us who don’t really have a good grasp of those matters. Without going into details, it was several nerve-wracking days before we finally located a tax advisor who would take on our case.
This story has a relatively happy ending. The X-ray showed that I had developed osteoarthritis in my foot, an age-related malady. The orthopedist’s secretary called to say that there had been a cancellation and that I could come the following week. He confirmed the diagnosis and said that the swelling had stabilized and I would be able to return to work, but advised me to tread gingerly. I was subsequently able to go to Bnei Brak on my own to have my glasses attended to and, as they promised, they fixed them on the spot. Finally, our tax accountant called to say that he had filed a late return on our behalf along with a letter explaining why these two befuddled retirees had meant no harm in not filing on time. He also requested that the fines be forgiven.
One afternoon, not long after these events, I was lying on the sofa, reading a book with my foot elevated (something I had gotten used to doing, and was now doing as a precaution) when the phone rang. Oh, no. Not him again. Reluctantly, I got up and went to the kitchen. “Hello?” I said. No delay. No “Shalom!” No Hasidic music in the background. Just a nice young woman’s voice at the other end of the line. “Hello, Mr. Libenson. I am calling from Mifal HaPayis, the State Lottery. Could I interest you in a one year’s subscription?”
“You know,” I answered. “I‘m feeling lucky.”