Getting my Israeli citizenship? Easy. Opening Israeli bank accounts? Piece of cake. Signing up for Israeli health care? Easier than getting a doctor's appointment in the US.
Getting my Israeli drivers license? The most traumatic experience of my aliyah.
This story starts way back in August, when my husband and I bought a used Hyundai Getz. We found it using the Israeli buy/sell website www.yad2.co.il, and to save a few thousand shekels, we bought a manual transmission car. I knew how to drive stick, but my husband didn't, so test driving was all me. I was TERRIFIED to drive on the Israeli streets... I stalled twice when I tried to start the car, then crawled around the block once at about 10 kilometers per hour and finally said, "Great! We'll take it!" Worst test-drive ever, but the car has turned out to be fine... despite the fact that my husband regularly curses the day I convinced him to buy manual. (He's learned, though!)
Flash forward to January. We'd both been comfortably driving all around northern and southern Israel in our little Getz (affectionately named "the Munchkin"). My husband and I were seated in the "Misrad haRishui," our local branch of the Dept. of Transportation, to start the process for my husband's Israeli license. We knew that I could drive in Israel for up to a year after aliyah on my American license, but my husband's license had expired. As we waited for some forms, my husband suggested we check the expiration date on my license. Oops. It had expired in August. We decided not to mention this to the Misrad HaRishui, as there we were with our car parked in the lot outside... and no other way to get home. But after that point, I didn't drive the Munchkin.
Luckily, because my license had expired so recently, I could skip the written test. While this test is the bane of many Israelis' existence, I actually think it's easier for olim. To pass, picture how Israelis drive and then answer the opposite. Sample question:
What should you do when a car cuts you off on the highway?
(A) Honk repeatedly.
(B) Accelerate to pass the car.
(C) Tailgate and flash your lights until the car moves out of your lane.
(D) Reduce speed so that you are following behind at a safe distance.
Israelis would engage in choices (A)-(C), possibly simultaneously, so the correct answer is (D).
I was still required to take lessons with an instructor and then a road test. In March, I finally started my lessons with "Avi," an instructor who talked incessantly on his cell phone while students were driving and whose basic motivational technique involved lecturing when students did something wrong and telling them the secret to good driving was doing exactly what he said. As long as he wasn't actually talking on the cell phone to someone else at the time. In other words, he was very Israeli. In retrospect, I think I would have done better with a different teacher-- I tend to like a softer, dare-I-say "American" touch. (My husband worked very well with Avi, and passed his test on the first try after just a few lessons. Men.) But Avi excelled at working the system, and after pushing me through a few weeks of lessons, he took me down to the Misrad haRishui to argue for a test "chutz mehamisgeret," which would allow me to avoid the waiting period of about a month for a normal test.
Now, let me interrupt this to say that taking a driving test in Israel is not as easy as in the US. For one thing, we must know how to navigate traffic circles (or "roundabouts"), and we must identify the difference between what IS a traffic circle (meaning that whoever enters first has the right of way) and what looks like a traffic circle (meaning that you sometimes have to stop and yield in the middle). To make things extra fun, just before every roundabout and at random spots along the road, we have pedestrian crosswalks, and you can fail your test for not stopping when an old lady nears the edge of the crosswalk as you sail through. Then you have a random spattering of yield signs and stop signs, often with no logic telling you that this should be "yield" and this should be "stop." You also must deal with the Israeli penchant for lanes ending randomly or for the "straight ahead" lane to switch from the left to the right side of the road twenty times in a row. And you regularly come to intersections like this (my own picture):
Oh, and did I mention that because we own a stick shift car, I have to take the TEST on my instructor's stick shift car? And that I can fail the test if I don't shift smoothly enough (or use the clutch too much, or stall, or brake too sharply, or slow down in neutral, etc.) And I HATE driving lessons. I hate the passivity of only turning when the instructor tells you to, I hate trying to relearn skills that are automated, and I hate having every little part of my driving criticized. And it's extra stressful to me to not understand my instructor when he tells me (in Hebrew) to parallel park after the pile of brush in front of the yellow trash can, near the cat. And driving tests are far worse than lessons. I'm good at paper tests... not so good at driving tests when I can't go back to change an answer, and I might accidentally kill someone in the process. Plus, it's way more embarassing and frustrating to fail a driving test after driving for nine years.
To top it all off, I had already driven in Israel for months, so I'd internalized a lot of bad Israeli driving habits-- for the test, I had to learn how to drive not like an Israeli but like a promotional video for road safety.
Finally, getting a license in Israel is EXPENSIVE. Every lesson cost me 80 shekels. The test cost 350, plus a fee of about 100 shekels payable to the government. Plus probably other fees that are slipping my mind right now, like a fee to pay when I actually get my license. (New drivers have to take a minimum of something like 24 lessons, so Israeli parents can do the math-- not everyone gets a license at 17 here!)
My test was April 1st, which I should immediately have seen as a bad omen. I did everything perfectly... except for one little detail. I, er, didn't see a red light.
The examiner slammed on the breaks on his side of the car.
With our thudding halt I realized that I'd failed my first test. Another "chutz mehamisgeret" test was out of the question, so I had to wait... until "achrei haChagim," after the holidays, a catch-phrase signaling that nothing will get done either during the High Holidays in September or the string of holidays starting with Passover in the spring.
After Passover, I called Avi again... and was told to call back after Yom Haatzmaut. After Shavuot, Avi informed me that his car had burnt up. (Really.) Finally, two months after my first test, he called me back with my next test date: June 10. The morning after my sister was supposed to arrive in Israel in the middle of the night. And we were only able to schedule three quick review lessons before that, and after not driving for two months, I needed them. Something about a stick shift reveals every bit of driving discomfort.
Anyway, yesterday I took my second test, attempting every zen relaxation and focus technique possible during the test. I didn't do anything as horribly wrong as I had on my first test, but I also know plenty of people who have failed three or four times for far littler offenses. I took the test at 9 AM, and then I had to wait until 4:15 to find out if I had passed.
Finally, the call came. Avi: "Mazel tov, avart!" I passed. No more thousands of shekels spent, no more trips in my instructor's car. Now I just need to wait for my paper temporary license to arrive, pay a few more fees, and finally... I'll be just another Israeli driver. Unleashed onto the Israeli streets.
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