From: The Aliyah War Stories Series
The year was 5775 (or thereabouts).
I was cherry faced. A sprightly young oleh of 26. I still had my gallbladder. They were simpler times. In some respects, they were better times. But After Aliyah didn’t exist yet so they can’t have been that good.
After leaving the salubrious surroundings of Ulpan Etsion, I relocated to the bustling metropolis of Jerusalem city center. My first sublet was from a friend. Then I was the awkward third in a flatshare with a guy that was really a couple (thankfully that phase only lasted a month).
After several enduring the life of a sublet-bouncing itinerant for an entire summer I finally gave up on the idea of trying to coordinate finding a place with roommates. I ended up renting an apartment in Jerusalem city center. For legal reasons, I can’t divulge the exact street.
For a period, things were good. I was working a job at a high tech park so I actually had to leave the house on occasion.
Then one day, out of the blue, I got a call from my landlord.
The flat below me, which was occupied by a few students, was experiencing a leak. Five years’ renting in Israel has convinced me that plumbing here is just often poorly done. This wasn’t the first time and probably won’t be the last (note: there is currently a similar leak in our building. No, I will not be letting anybody near our toilet while I’m not there!).
The fearsome allegation was that the cause of the plumbing mishap originated in my bathroom directly above the students. My landlord asked my permission to send their handyman to check out the source of the leak while I was at the office. Being a newbie oleh freier I agreed. “Zeh bi’seder gamur!” (that’s perfectly fine) I probably intoned with all the wisdom of a man putting his life savings into penny stocks.
I returned from work that evening to a rather distressing scene.
Where, a few hours ago, the floor of the bathroom had been, there now stood a heap of mud. The toilet had apparently been extricated. In its place was piping from the cistern that led nowhere and an open drain. Random tools and work supplies lied scattered throughout the apartment (that was about big enough to stretch my legs in).
Confronted by the rather shocking state of my shoebox-sized living quarters I made the phone call that I hope I will never have to again (same for you, oleh reader): “sorry, there seems to have been a bit of a misunderstanding. Your contractor has ripped up my toilet and there’s just mud where the shower was this morning. Any chance you could get that seen to?”
The ignominy of the situation was compounded by the fact that I had literally nowhere to go except to take refuge with my then girlfriend whose parents were (conveniently) on the way from the US. Talk about a great way to make a first impression with the parents: “Hi, I’m your daughter’s boyfriend, and I’m going to have to be sleeping on the couch because my landlord ripped out my toilet so I’m here because … bodily functions. Sorry about that! Nice to meet you!”
Attempting to overcompensate in my efforts to learn the local culture — actually maybe this was pretty reasonable — I tried playing hardball with my landlord.
This endeavor, however, was complicated by the fact that the apartment was — I believe — illegally subdivided and the owner of the other half was the husband she had just got divorced from. So in addition to having no toilet I was caught in the middle of acrimonious divorce proceedings. “But I have nowhere to go!” I insisted desperately “you need to pay for a hotel.”
My landlord was unmoved by my pleas and ended the phone call with “ani mitstaeret” (I am sorry). Fortunately I was at a wedding that night so the shame of not having a toilet (or shower) was blunted a little by the simcha.
In the meantime, I took up residence in my then girlfriend’s apartment. After about four days, my landlord finally agreed to provide a key to a downstairs apartment that was under construction. I could live in my apartment — with its rubble bathroom — and then use the downstairs toilet whenever I needed to.
Day after day contractors began shuffling in and the weeks — as in yes the weeks — rolled by laconically.
Sometimes they would show up with ten minutes’ notice at eight in the morning and demand to be let in only to inspect the toilet and then disappear after ten minutes having done absolutely nothing. A student was commandeered to try help with the renovations who told me that he was studying for his undergraduate degree by day and I guess fixing toilets by morning. It appeared that the landlord was trying to spend as little money as possible and trying to find the cheapest contractor to get the job done all while my bathroom was a pile of rubble. Or they were fighting about who to hire. I didn’t know. I didn’t care. I just wanted my toilet / shower back.
After the start of the second or third week without a toilet — sleeping elsewhere — I returned to the apartment to find that there had been another new leak (a leak caused while trying to fix leak one) and my apartment was now surfaced by a centimetre or so of water that had (conveniently) soaked through the few remaining clothes I was storing there (I’d already moved out most of my belongings not really expecting to return). There were a few more contractors on hand for good measure. The shame of having to answer “yes” to “do you live here?” caused a mental scare to form. The usual assortment of people that seemed to change every time. It was at this point that the contractor took me aside and advised, in earnest, that I abandon the apartment. I took his advice.
I relate the above story primarily to underscore how shoddy Israel’s tenant protection law remains in too many respects.
Although attempts at reform have been forthcoming, in some respects even those attempts have been completely frustrated — such as the realtor hiring fee that conveniently still falls on renters because agents have found a convenient “workaround” that frustrates the intent of the law.
While in retrospect it’s easy to laugh at the sheer ridiculousness of the situation, at the time it wasn’t funny at all. If it weren’t for my girlfriend, I would have been running around town in a frantic panic trying to find accommodation. What happens when you’re an oleh and your apartment is suddenly uninhabitable? I don’t want to know and I hope that you never need to.
Too often olim end up renting from bad landlords. Olim are in a vulnerable situation. We need protection and support for when things go wrong. As well as legal mechanisms to ensure that this kind of insanity isn’t permitted — and can be speedily resolved.
Article ID: 437