People like to groan about bureaucrats. Israeli bureaucrats are especially notorious for being unhelpful and unpleasant. In fact, a selling point of the Nefesh B’Nefesh program is that it helps olim deal with Israeli officials, or avoid them.

Well, perhaps so, but as Albert Einstein probably did not say, everything is relative. Israeli clerks may be bad, but compared to what? We have clerks in America too.

Next November 6, Election Day in the US, we will be out of town for a family simcha. (Why, thank you. May you have many too.) This means that for the first time, my wife and I will have to cast absentee ballots for president. A friend told me it was easy. “Just go to City Hall,” he said. “Takes no time.”

So I went to City Hall. “Absentee ballots? Right around the corner, Room 106.”

There were two clerks in Room 106, and no customers. “Absentee voting?” said a man. “Sure, Cynthia will help you.”

Cynthia came to the desk.

“I’d like to cast an absentee ballot,” I told her. She handed me two sheets of paper and a mailing envelope. “Please fill the forms out completely,” she said.

“Can I fill some out for my wife too?” I asked. “No,” said Cynthia, “she has to come in herself.”

At the top of one form was a line to indicate which election I wanted to vote in. I skipped the box for the primary coming up and  week and wrote in, “November 6, 2012,” Election Day. I waved to Cynthia when I thought I was done.

“You left out these boxes,” she said. “That’s for the date I mail it,” I said. “Put in the date,” said Cynthia. “But I don’t know what date I’ll be mailing it back,” I said. Cynthia looked at me as though I were a somewhat dim 5-year-old. “Put today’s date,” she said. “That’s when you’re giving it in.”

“Isn’t the envelope for me to mail it back in?” I asked. She shook her head. I apologized, explaining that I had never voted absentee before.

Cynthia handed me a ballot. “Fill it out in the hall,” she said, “then put it in the envelope, seal it, and bring it back.”

On the bench outside, I saw that the ballot was for the primary next week. I went back into Room 106. “Forgive me,” I said, “but I want to vote in the Presidential election in November.”

Cynthia was miffed. “You didn’t say that,” she said. “You just said you wanted to vote.” Technically true, though I did write November 6 on the form. But I didn’t say that.

“Can I get a presidential ballot?” I asked. “We don’t have them,” said Cynthia. “When will you get them?” I asked. Cynthia didn’t know. Maybe October. “I’ll just fill out the primary ballot,” I said, “as long as I’m here.” “Will you also be out of town next week for the primary?” she asked. “No,” I said, “but you gave me the ballot, so I’ll fill it out.”

Back on the bench in the hall, I saw that most names were unfamiliar, and many candidates were running unopposed. I toyed with writing in Alfred E. Neuman, but thought better of trifling with a key civic virtue.

Returning to Room 106, I handed Cynthia the ballot, sealed in its envelope. “Would you like to order a ballot for November?” asked Cynthia. “We’ll mail it to you when it comes in.” “Sure,” I said. “You can order one for your wife too,” said Cynthia. I was delighted. “And when we fill it out, we mail it back?” I asked. Cynthia rolled her eyes. I had evidently regressed to kindergarten again. “No,” she said. “You bring them in.” “Got it,” I said, and filled out both forms.

“Now, at the primary next week,” said Cynthia, “your wife can go to the polls, but you can’t.” “Is that because I voted already?” I asked. “Yes,” said Cynthia. “I’m disappointed,” I said. “I thought you were supposed to vote early and often.”

“Some folks think so,” she said. “But it doesn’t work that way.”

“Then my wife will come alone,” I said, thinking that in this case at least, tov heyot ha’adam levado. Or haChava anyway.

I grew up in America. I speak the language. But I still didn’t know what was going on in a new setting with unfamiliar rules. How much harder must it be for an immigrant trying to negotiate a bureaucracy in a strange language, with procedures that are — shall we say — non-intuitive, and are overseen by clerks who act the way clerks do the world over? I have great empathy for strangers. I so often feel like one myself, even in my hometown city hall.

We have friends who have lived in Israel most of the past seven years but whose Hebrew, by their own assessment, is weak. Fiona tells of a recent visit to a Jerusalem office to fill out an application concerning municipal taxes. She saw a collection of various blank forms and chose one, completed it, and — proud of herself for doing it all in Hebrew — strode over to hand it in.

“Would you like some help filling this out?” asked the clerk.

“No,” said Fiona. “It’s all done.”

“Are you sure you don’t want some help?” the clerk asked again.

Now Fiona’s dander was starting to rise. “Why do you keep asking that?” she said. “I already filled it out.”

“Because,” said the clerk, gently, “you just filled out a death certificate.”

May we all live and be well till 120. Can you imagine how long the lines will be and what the clerks will be like in the olam ha’emet?

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