Israeli Shekel

By Larry Gordon

With the strengthening of the American dollar overseas, it has become simpler to figure out how many dollars you are spending on an item when you are being charged shekels. And that is where both the cultural and the economic divide come into play. Israelis think in terms of shekels, and those visiting from the U.S., as we were last week, cannot help but walk around mentally dividing everything by four, chopping off a fraction in order to better ascertain expenditures. (Last week the dollar was 3.95 shekels.)

So these days, whether you are shopping at Zara in the expansive and impressive Ramat Aviv mall, buying pizza on Ben Yehudah Street, or considering a real-estate purchase in Katamon, your mind has to work on simultaneous tracks–shekels and dollars. Functioning or operating on this dual track can be distracting, which lends itself–especially if you are not accustomed to the system–to paying excessive amounts or being needlessly overcharged.

Although I’ve been doing this for a long time, it still takes time to adjust. This is particularly true once you’ve been sized up and profiled as a tourist staying in a pricey part of town. There is no getting around that; once they have you pegged, well, you are pegged.

One of the many things I love about Israel is that in my estimation it is impossible to be ripped off. Okay, many years ago I unthinkingly left a camera inside my tallis bag at the Kotel and the camera disappeared. But I like to view even that a bit differently. Someone there needed a camera and I left mine more or less in plain sight. Maybe if I had zipped up the tallis bag they would not have taken it. I was troubled by that incident for a little while but I think I’ve gotten over it. No, really, I have.

About a year ago, I stopped renting a car in Israel. I used to like driving there–it was kind of thrilling–but not anymore. It’s been a gradual process. Over the last few years, it has become practically impossible to drive there, in particular into the Old City of Jerusalem. At first you were allowed to drive in, but there was just nowhere to park the car legally. Inevitably we would just leave it somewhere that looked unobtrusive and safe. That usually resulted in a 100-shekel parking ticket that would eventually get deducted from my credit card in the course of the year.

Over the last decade, I’ve had my car towed away twice. The car pound is just a block or two off Jaffa Road and, to my surprise, it was only 200 shekel at the time to get your car back. It was almost worth using the pound as a parking lot.

Today, to drive into the Old City you have to be driving a taxi or be a resident there with a car decal to prove it. Aside from that, it is still exciting to walk in the ancient footsteps of our forefathers in the direction of the Kotel and Har HaBayit. It’s not the same by car. So our gratitude from New York drivers to whoever decided no more cars in the Old City. In addition to this new vehicular reality, interfacing with the taxi drivers is an experience unto itself.

I don’t know if it’s just me, but I don’t mind overpaying for things in Israel. I view these situations as an additional tzedakah opportunity. So you did not have the proper kavanah or intent, but the fact of the matter is that you made a donation to what is likely a worthy cause–a family or individual in Israel. That is not exactly dissimilar to what the people who ring our doorbells and visit our offices are collecting for.

Perhaps that’s why when I ran up a 50-shekel total on a taxi meter and gave the driver 100 shekels, I didn’t say anything when he handed me back 25 shekels change. I suspected that he believed that I did not understand the currency. I do, but felt that if he needed another 25 shekel so badly, so be it.

There were a couple of things in Israel two weeks ago that left me just a little bit unnerved that I felt compelled, albeit reluctantly, to do something about it. One situation was when I needed to change some American currency into shekels. I walked over to a nearby kiosk, a block away from where we were staying, because they have these two big neon signs. One says “CHANGE,” and the other one says “NO COMMISSION.” Both attracted my attention the few times that I passed them by.

So I ask the young man in charge of the booth to take $200 off my credit card and give me the equivalent in shekels. I ask about the exchange rate and he says it is 3.82; I don’t say anything even though I know it is over 3.9 and very close to 4 shekels to the dollar. (You can consult my approach to these things in the above paragraphs. This comes under that category.)

But then the next morning I’m looking at my Chase account and I see that the “NO COMMISSION” guy actually charged me $240, which is an astounding 20% commission after all. My feeling was that it is not a big deal, but don’t advertise that you charge no commission if you charge a 20% commission. We were busy over the next few days so I made a mental note to go back to the guy and show him what I was charged. I told my wife that I don’t want the money back but I just wanted him to know that I know.

I went back and told him what I discovered. His first reaction was that it wasn’t him, but that the banks both in Israel and New York assessed the charges. I told him that I spoke to the bank in New York and that there was no such charge. He then said that if I gave him back the shekels he would credit my card. I told him to forget it and to have a nice day.

The next day we were planning on checking out a spa that is fairly close to Jerusalem–Cramim. It is supposed to be similar to the Carmel Spa near Haifa, sparing us from having to traverse half the country to spend a day walking aimlessly in a bathrobe and slippers. Since I do not have a car, I step out of the hotel and walk over to one of the taxis waiting near the front entrance. The first thing I do is ask a question that convincingly demonstrates that I am an American tourist and that I do not know where I am going.

I ask the driver how much he will charge me to the Cramim Spa. He says 220 shekel. I quickly divide by four and compute that the trip is only $55 and that it sounds reasonable, so we hop right in. We ask him to put the meter on but he just ignores us. I think I heard him say the words “good price” a few times, which I suppose means that the price was indeed good–for him, if for no one else.

Cramim is a nice place well worth the visit. It’s not that far from the center of Jerusalem, just a little bit past the exit off Route 1 to Mevaseret Zion. The whole ride was about 20 minutes and he must have known we would be glad to pay whatever he asked so long as we didn’t have to spend too much time in his car.

Actually we were not sure whether it was a fair price but did not dwell on it. That is until it was time to return to Jerusalem that evening and we asked the front desk to call a taxi for us. The young lady who called the cab put the company on hold to ask us about the price. “Is 110 shekel okay?” she asked with a look on her face like that was kind of high. We looked at one another with that expression of resignation–it’s happened again.

The next morning, I saw the same taxi in front of the hotel. Once again I did not want the money back. I just wanted the driver to know that I knew. So I mosey on up to him. “Good morning,” I say. “You know you charged us double what you should have to Cramim.” He responds that as far as he knew that was the right price and then calls over another one of the drivers standing by. He says to his buddy, “What’s the right price from here to Cramim?” The guy hesitates and then flashes a look like he wants to help his friend by giving us an inflated price. He thinks for a few seconds and then says “140 shekel.” That’s still 80 shekel less than what we were actually charged.

Itzik reached into his pocket and hands me a 50-shekel note and says he’s sorry, that he made an error. That could happen. I took the note and gave it to one of the ladies sitting at the Kotel the next evening.

The point of all this is that if you’re staying in one of those areas of town that says you are a tourist from New York, expect to be overcharged. But also know that you are not really being overcharged. They think they are taking more money from you than they should, but you are really just giving some additional charity. Whether or not the recipients deserve it is another story. I think that by virtue of the fact that they live there and we live here, perhaps unbeknownst to them they definitely deserve the extra shekels. That’s just one of the many things I love about this place–the honor to give by being taken.

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