Over many years I have had the doubtful pleasure of serving the public. My first experience was at the age of about twenty when, as part of my pharmacy studies, I was an apprentice in a community pharmacy. It was an entirely new experience and one that scared the hell out of me. I stutter and have done so since childhood. Would I manage? Would someone make fun of me? Children can be cruel but adults at times have difficulty hiding what is usually their own embarrassment when confronted with the disabilities of others, and laughing may be involuntary but hurtful to those at whom it is directed, however unintentional. Even today there is a particular woman - I cannot call her a lady- who cannot help herself and always laughs. In spite of myself, she makes me angry, so I avoid her completely. Fortunately, she is unique and although I see her from time to time, I no longer need to have dealings with her.
I must have coped quite well as an apprentice, as my boss, Rose Galasko, who is probably no longer with us, gave me the keys to open the business after lunch so that she could have forty winks. However, maybe I was too young to take the compliment and as I don’t remember her praising my endeavors, I was unaware of my achievement. I don’t think anyone, even my mother, with whom I had a particularly close relationship, took time to point out how well I was doing, although my parents did spend time and money trying to help. These endeavours proved fruitless. I suppose it was their ‘stiff upper lip’ generational attitude. However I do remember my mother offering to buy me a car when I turned eighteen, if I could improve my speech, probably at the suggestion of one of the psychologists from whom they sought advice.
This is the background I had when I decided to buy a pharmacy in Israel. I had been told that owning a retail pharmacy, in Israel, was ‘a license to steal’. In colloquial Hebrew ‘pharmacy prices’ means exorbitant, an expression that I did not understand for some years. Certainly not a compliment!
I investigated several businesses, one in Netanya, another in Kiryat Malachi and one or two in Jerusalem. Although I had professional advice, I cannot blame those who O.K.’d the deal. I also, to this day, like to believe that most people are intrinsically honest. I bought my business from Aviva Granot, later dubbed ‘The Lady in Red’, when she and a friend were charged and found guilty of murder, to cover some dodgy business deal. They ran over their victim with her car. She and her then husband were making a forced sale. She had been the treasurer of the local pharmacy society and had skimmed money, for personal use, off the amounts that were owed to the various businesses by the Medical Aid societies (Kupot Holim). Once caught and facing severe consequences, she had no option but to pay it back.
Fraud was a possibility but it was not reflected in the accounts that my accountant and I were given to check, but of a more devious kind. Had I been told the methods used, I would never have believed it possible, but at the time, before computerization, substituting cosmetics and other non pharmaceuticals, on medical prescriptions, at the request of the customers, was widely practiced and accepted. When a patient visited the doctor, who was also complicit, they requested medicines that they neither needed nor used. The value of the excess drugs were calculated and exchanged – minus the patient’s contribution - for other goods, including diapers and even cosmetics. The contribution by the patient was and remains minimal on all medicine prescriptions, the larger part being paid by the Kupot Holim.
The pharmacy, still operating today, but under a different name, is in Makor Baruch, a religious area of Jerusalem. My romantic ideal of a religious Jew was a good character from a story by Shalom Aleichem or Isaac Singer, but the reality is they are no different from the rest of us, some good, some bad, most average. When I questioned one of those customers, who asked me to continue the practice of my predecessor, whether he had the ‘right’ to buy his shampoo and other toiletries instead of medicines needed to combat or prevent illness, he told me that he had the blessing of his rabbi! To say that I was shocked is an understatement. This was one of the incidences that destroyed my naiveté as a businessman. Needless to say, my policy of non-compliance with these irregular methods of doing business reduced my income.
My innocence was further exposed when I received a phone call from ‘Dr. Stark’ at that time the chief medical officer of the Jerusalem area. I did not know who he was, but he told me he was sending in a prescription for some hard drugs and asked if I had them and would I supply them to the patients. Being new and keen to get business and help those in need, I eagerly assented. Neither the phone call nor the prescriptions were genuine. The tom-toms of the Jerusalem junkies had drummed out the news of the ‘green’ pharmacist and hoped I was ‘muggins’, as they say in British slang. That day all the pimps and prostitutes of the city assailed my shop. The next morning I felt something was wrong and phoned the area pharmacist at the Ministry of Health, nearby. He railed at me for my ignorance but he did nothing, as I had initiated contact. I continue to this day to have an excellent working relationship with the local authorities.
These incidents are two of the downsides of serving the public, but I had many more positive than negative experiences. In order to follow the law and comply with the income tax regulations all businesses must of course keep accounts, among which a cash register and receipt books are primary. After initially ordering from a supplier not in my area I found Mr. Brandmark, a client who had a print shop one or two streets away on the ground floor of his apartment. As I said, I had always had an idea of the religious Jew being some kind of perfection. A kind, honest, tolerant person, with an angelic face and white beard, like a Chagall painting, diligent in his work, as he is in his religious observance. Such a man was Mr. Brandmark, of blessed memory. Our relationship over the years, about nine in all, in spite of different life styles, was a friendship as well as business. To this day when I occasionally meet a member of his family, we greet each other warmly.
One character that definitely fitted the world of nineteenth century Jewish shtetl life was ‘Plaster Man’. No, he wasn’t a superhero, but an itinerant, who bought and sold odds and ends for an apparent existence. From pharmacies, including mine, he bought plasters (Band-Aids), in quantity. He wore dirty black clothes, with an even grubbier hat on his head, soaked in summer by sweat. In summer he frequented the mikva, but in winter he seemed to shy away from water due to the cold, as a musty smell seemed to emanate from his clothes and body. For all his minuses, he was a very pleasant old fellow and I was fond of him, in a paternalistic way. It wasn’t his fault he was poor. I always imagined he could have been a Holocaust survivor, who hadn’t been able to cope, but I don’t know and I didn’t ask. Prying is not something at which I am adept.
Another one of the misfits of life ‘ theYeshiva Bocher’, an American of about fifty years of age, well read and conversant with many subjects, quietly spoken and reserved, who found in me a sympathetic ear. He would visit me now and again, discussing many subjects, on occasion outstaying his welcome. After all, I had work to do. He spoke about his old mother and siblings in America, who sent him money, perhaps to keep him at a distance. He lived in one of the yeshivas, washing dishes and being a general dogsbody, for his bed and board. He tried to form friendships with the students and also partake in the studies, but he was one of the shunned of society. I still wonder how anyone can be so alone and lonely.
My most intimate contact with the Holocaust was when my upstairs neighbor rolled up his sleeve for me to check his blood pressure, a service I carried out for a few shekels. The tattooed number was clear for all to see. He survived, raised a family and lived a ‘normal’ life. I cannot imagine how one can go to hell, survive, and come back to life. Perhaps only one who has deep faith or completely denies the existence of a superior force can prevail.
Since I have been in Israel, I always speak Hebrew unless the other party to the conversation is a native English speaker. I worked for a short time at Hadassah Hospital before going into business, and some of my co-workers were only too pleased to practice their English. I refused. I would never learn Hebrew if I made no effort. One of my customers, an attractive Haredi woman in her late twenties, only spoke Hebrew, until one day for reasons I don’t remember, she said something in perfect English with a London accent.
“Why have you never spoken to me in English before?” I asked.
“My father survived the Shoah. He raised us never to speak the language of the goyim, unless absolutely necessary.”
We reverted immediately to Hebrew.
Another incident, which I did at first not understand, was when I sold a nipple for a feeding bottle, a daily occurrence.
“What is wrong with it?” I asked when the customer brought it back a short time later.
“It has a cross on the rim.”
“But that is how they make it in Spain, I can’t change that fact.”
“I won’t buy anything with a cross on it, the goyim have caused the Jews enough grief.”
Everything is a learning curve. I was getting a new and interesting insight into a world I hadn’t known existed.
Other English speakers were more than willing to chat in our common language.
One lady, born and raised in Chicago, intimated that she had led a very colourful life, straying from the straight and narrow orthodox life she knew, before coming back to religion. She was worldly and seemed in tune with the secular world. Her husband was a black-bearded, black-clothed Haredi, who apparently had never ventured outside his ghetto-like existence. They seemed to me an odd couple.
One of the largest families with whom I was acquainted, whose father was a Rosh Yeshiva, from a famous religious dynasty, of whom I had never heard at the time,had, I think seventeen children. When I asked the eldest daughter, who was about to marry, how many siblings she had, she explained one doesn’t count children. The mother was still a tall slim woman, with a young face. I don’t think anyone would have guessed that she could have been the ‘woman who lived in a shoe.’
I spent about nine years in the area, learned a lot and still to this day I say “Baruch Ha’shem”, “B’ezrat Ha’shem” withoutthinkingand I never forget to say Shabbat Shalom. It was a unique and wonderful learning experience, which has enriched my understanding of a world I would never have entered, even as a guest.
I took to wearing a kippa at work, and this did please some of the clientele, but as interesting as the neighbourhood was, I would possibly have been happier and more successful in an area where the residents were non – orthodox, even secular.