If you ever see me behind the wheel of a car on the streets or highways of Israel pinch yourself: you are dreaming. Because, despite having a valid driver’s license and car ownership, I foresworn driving in this country several years ago.
This decision has made my life difficult and embarrassing, at times. I have had to hit up strangers for rides and explain to overseas friends visiting that I can’t take them touring. I have had to rely upon a notoriously slow and inefficient bus system. Yes, you can get most places in Israel, but it will sometimes take you an insane amount of time. Once, it took me over four hours to reach my daughter’s army base up North when driving would have more than halved the time. I have spent so much money on Get Taxi that I long ago reached their highest user status known as “King of the Road.” My excitement over that achievement dissipated when I learned that it comes with zero perks and a big credit card bill.
Yet neither embarrassment, time nor expense can induce me to drive in Israel. Because as a middle-aged woman, I believe I should do whatever it takes to lower my stress level. For me, that means no driving. I call this decision my gift to myself.
It was the mighty Ayalon, more than anything, that felled me. Many years ago, as a new immigrant, I entered this fabled highway and not a single car, truck or bus barreling by at top speed would allow me to merge into traffic. Obviously somehow, I did get on the highway but then the stress heightened when I was constantly tailgated, despite being in the slow line. (I learned that there isn’t really a slow lane on the Ayalon, just a slower lane). The stress peaked when cars from the far-left exited right at the last moment.
There’s more that bugs me about driving here: the motorist’s perception of the turn indicator as optional, narrow streets and “bad” pedestrians who appear out of nowhere. And don’t even get me started on the cyclists and cab drivers.
As a resident of Tel Aviv, I dreaded getting into tight parking situations which could never be done under the cloak of anonymity. There always seemed to be a male passer-by with seemingly nothing else to do but direct me into a space with exaggerated hand gestures, eye rolling, and a general disdain at my perceived incompetency.
I should note that poor driving runs in my genes. My maternal grandmother gave up her license after driving a Cadillac through a storefront window. My father kept a valid drivers’ license in his wallet throughout his 84 years but only got behind the drivers’ seat once when my mother twisted her neck during a family road trip down South.
As a Manhattanite, I’m also cursed geographically. Driving, a rite of passage for most American teenagers, is a privilege for Manhattanites. While our suburban counterparts needed to drive to gain their independence, we were already tooling around the city easily by taking the bus, subway, and taxis or even walking.
I did drive for many years in Washington DC where I used to live. My ability to master the Beltway, no small fry highway, made me dare to think I could deal with the driving here.
Yet driving remained the part of my Israeli assimilation that never took hold. It’s up there with learning perfect Hebrew and navigating lines. I feel too American to make it work. Because the secret to driving in Israel, as with everything else, requires a plucky and daredevil self-confidence, which has never been my strong suit.
That’s why I’m leaving the driving to my sabra children. My oldest child acquired her license several years ago and my youngest child is now on the verge of obtaining his. (I wish someone could answer this paradox: why are there so many reckless drivers here when many flunk the road test multiple times?) Once the kid passes the test, I’ll be legally required to accompany him driving for the first few months. Then I’ll have to morph into an elder statesman driver, poised to correct his mistakes, grab the wheel if necessary and generally assume a look of serenity. Poor kid. Poor mother.