Drilling for Identity

by Brian on January 20, 2006

in Only in Israel

There was nothing I could do about it. I knew that. Still, no one
enjoys living next door to a construction site. Especially when the two
dwellings in question share a common wall and the noise is so loud you
literally have to go into the stairwell to make a phone call.

When the drilling first started, I figured our neighbors were probably
doing a little touch up work. Putting in a new light fixture or
something. Happens all the time in this nation under perpetual

When it went on for another day, then two, I went to check out the scene.

The house was full of construction workers. Large moving trucks were
packing up the existing contents of the apartment – furniture,
appliances, paintings, you name it. The apartment’s residents had
clearly left for quieter pastures.

I saw a man talking on a cell phone. His body language had a bravado that could only be associated with the position of kablan – Hebrew for contractor or foreman.

I mustered up my best construction worker Hebrew. “So, you’re putting
in a new kitchen, or…” It was more of a statement than a question.

“Guttin’ the whole thing,” he finished my sentence.

“Upstairs and downstairs?”

He managed a slight smile. This obviously wasn’t the first time someone had asked this question.

There was one more thing I needed to know. “Um, how long do you think it will take?” I asked, waiting in dread for the reply.

“Three months.”

Ouch. Because everyone knows that whatever a contractor in Israel says, multiply by a minimum of two. Or three.

There was a time when I looked forward to construction. One of my very
first Israel experiences was in 1984 when I signed up for the Livnot U’Lehibanot program in the old city of Tsfat.

Known in English as “To Build and to be Built,” the program placed a
couple dozen twentysomethings in a centuries-old stone house where we
spent mornings doing construction projects around town and studying our
Jewish roots after lunch. It was the very first Jewish reality
show…albeit with a very different payoff (in my case, I decided to stay
in Israel where I later met my wife Jody – in Tsfat no less – and we
subsequently chose to do a little building of our own).

The next morning, the drilling jolted me out of my reverie – and out of
bed at 7:00 AM. I turned to wake Jody, but she was already up.

“Do you think there’s a law governing how early they can start?” I said bitterly.

“What?” Jody mumbled, unable to hear me over the ongoing din. Yes, it was that loud.

We called “106”, the Jerusalem municipal hotline. The response was not encouraging.

“They can start as early as 6:00 AM,” explained Shmulik, the friendly
but perfunctory clerk on the other end. “And they don’t have to stop
until eleven at night.”

The Hebrew word for renovation is shiputz. At this point, it sounded more like a curse. Shi-pootzShee…poootzzzzz….

Feeling like a condemned man, I stepped into the stairwell to think. I
wasn’t alone. Two other neighbors were also looking for escape.

“We should do something,” one said, apparently in a more militant mood than me.

“Like what?” I said, not wanting to sound as defeatist as I felt. But
logic was not in our favor. “They do have a right to fix up their
place.” Indeed, I knew that it would not be that long before Jody and I
would be doing the same thing with the apartment we had recently

“We could ask them to limit the work to certain hours,” one neighbor offered. “Get a break in the middle of the day, maybe?”

Israeli law actually defines the time between 2:00 PM and 4:00 PM as
“Quiet Hours.” Kids playing ball on the street are routinely chastised
by napping neighbors. How much more so then would be knocking down
walls with several sledgehammers simultaneously.

“No…that would just extend the whole nightmare by another month.” I sighed.

“Maybe we should talk to a lawyer. I bet they don’t have all their permits in place…”

Which was undoubtedly true. No one in Israel starts a construction
project by asking questions that might receive a negative response.
There’s even an army term for it – “she’elah kitbag.”

A soldier asks his commanding officer if they should wear their heavy fully-loaded backpacks – in Hebrew their kitbags – on the upcoming 25 kilometer hike. As soon as the question is asked, the answer will undoubtedly be “of course.”

I shook my head. Kitbag or
not, I knew I’d have to see the owners of that apartment in our shared
courtyard or on the street for years to come. And anyway, I’m not the
type who likes to make waves. There was only one thing to do: grin and
bear it.

Or maybe…I could work on my own attitude. There must be some way to see some good in all this.

Jody, as so often is the case, provided the positive-thinking ammo I needed. “At least they’re here,” she said.

Say what? But she was right. Our noisy neighbors had just returned from
several years in the States. Many Israelis who head out to North
America never return. They get jobs in hi-tech or they open a kosher
burger joint. They say they’re coming back someday, but then the kids
get settled in school and, well…

But this family had gone, made some dough, and decided to come back.
Whether by conscious intention or not, they were making a courageous
commitment to stand with the people of Israel, to be a part of this
society despite all the tensions and dangers…and apparently to do it in
style. I might not like the inconvenience, but at least it was
patriotic. That had to be some kind of silver lining.

But don’t turn to me now and tell me how wonderful it that I’m no
longer tearing my hair out, how I’ve learned to embrace the noise.

I mean come on, I’m not that noble.

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