What was the most memorable moment in 2012? Was it Bibi Natanyahu’s Looney Tunes™ bombshell at the UN? Or perhaps the spectacle of “bombs bursting in air” as Iron Dome missiles intercepted salvos of incoming Palestinian rockets from Gaza? In fact, it was neither.
The most definitive events in 2012 were hidden in the back pages of the Hebrew papers that regularly report the wildest and wackiest aspects of life in Israel. Such incredible-but-true news stories provide fodder for the piquant Israeli news outlet in English Chelm-on-theMed Online that every January announces the winners of the annual “Chelm Awards” for the nuttiest or most piquant Only-in-Israel stories of the past year.
Who are this year’s Chelm laureates?
The 2012 Chelm Award for the Weirdest Behavior by an Israeli Politician goes to Ron Prosor for a matchless stroke of public diplomacy. When the Israeli Ambassador to the United Nations discovered that his counterpart from the Ivory Coast was none other than Youssoufou Bamba, Prosor decided to cement good relations between the two nations by introducing the African diplomat to Bamba – Israel’s popular peanut-flavored melt-in-your-mouth snack food of popped corn grits, telling the Ivorian that his name was “on the lips of every single child in Israel…”
Jerusalem’s has done it again. After winning the title of the Quirkiest Municipality in Israel for 2011 after demanding a third-party vehicle insurance policy for a camel named Kojak, the capital is again basking in the limelight, this time for orchestrating one of the weirdest liturgical pieces every composed: Tochnit Mit’ar (Municipal Plan). The lyrics are the opening bars… er, passages of Jerusalem’s Municipal Master Plan penned by engineers at the Municipal Planning Commission, set to music by composer Tali Keren. The composition debuted in a recital at City Hall.
Who took home Chelm’s Religious Oddities Award this year? The winner for 2012 is Moshe, the gabbai (sexton) of a hole-in-the-wall synagogue in Nachlaot – a quaint and picturesque maze of narrow alleyways in the heart of Jerusalem, who hatched a unique combina (deal) that ensures he will have a minyan (prayer quorum) every morning, while demonstrating affordable housing could be just around the corner: The sexton slashed the rent in a renovated apartment building he owns just down the street, provided that occupants sign a one-of-a-kind lease promising not only to pay their rent and utility bills on time; tenants are legally obligated to rise every morning at 5:30 AM to join Moshe’s minyan at the landlord’s synagogue.
The Chelm Award for Chutzpa for 2012 was a tossup: One true winner was a new cosmetic surgery clinic that manipulated keywords so that a Google adword for their services would pop up every time a surfer keyed in the name of one of Israel’s most prominent and respected plastic surgeon. Dr. Dov Klein took the piggy backers to court charging they illegally used his personal name and title to leverage their own business. The clinic has the chutzpa to claim that “Klein didn’t have absolute rights to his own name…” Luckily, a Magistrate Court of Tel Aviv-Jaffa thought otherwise. Co-recipient in the Chutzpa Category was a compulsive hoarder who didn’t limit the stuff he acquired at garage sales and auctions to what he could cram into his house. Having picked up twenty irresistible played-out vehicles for a song, the fellow towed the fleet home to Modi’in and hogged all available parking spaces on residential David Elazar Street, driving his neighbors to tears for over a year since apparently there’s nothing on the law books that limits the number of cars a resident might reasonably park on a public street.
Red tape is universal, but can take some odd forms in Israel. This year’s In the Jaws of the Bureaucracy Prize went to Eshtaol. The moshav faced a unique bureaucratic nightmare in connecting their village to the nation’s central sewage system. When a backhoe hit antiquities dating back to the Bronze Age, the Antiquities Authority not only halted all excavations on the sewage line, they demanded (this is legal!) that the moshav underwrite a two million NIS ($500,000) dig to assess the relics’ historic importance; authorities also clarified that even if the farmers fork over the princely sum, there’s no guarantee the mandatory ‘rescue excavation’ will ever take place because finding an archeologist who would consider the ‘find’ worthy of their time could take another 5,000 years….
And speaking of odd laws, this year’s Chelm Award for Landmark Legislation has nothing to do with slapping price controls on popcorn at movie theatres or attempting to ban free newspapers as undemocratic. Israel is no doubt the only country in the world with a ‘Tree Homicide’ Law that makes it illegal to cut down a mature tree – even on private land, without a green light from forestry officials. Pruning or damaging a tree in a manner that could jeopardize the tree’s life now carries a fine of up to 36,000 NIS ($9,474) and six months in jail.
While the spotlight for Israeli inventiveness is usually trained on high-tech firms, the 2012 Israeli Ingenuity Award belongs to kibbutz Sdeh Nechemia, whose ‘silent night sewer pipes’ solve a universal irritant that plagues apartment dwellers everywhere. The pipes magically absorb the noise of flowing water so plumbing no longer conveys the news to all the neighbors every time someone somewhere in the building visits the W.C – eliminating the need for laws like the one in Switzerland that prohibits flushing toilets after 10 PM.
The 2012 Chelm Prize for Out-of-the-Box Pedagogy goes to curriculum developers at the Ministry of Education who plan to establish a statewide network of boys’ choirs for third to fifth graders that the innovators believe will build healthy “male empowerment”; the pedagogues hope the glee clubs will break down macho stereotypes and combat bullying at schools, not teach the boys to sing on tune – a truly unique form of preaching to the choir.
The Chelm Award for Business Acumen has been awarded to a Bnei Brak couple who found themselves strapped for cash and decided to turn their progeny into a cash cow. Placing an ad in ultra-orthodox newspaper Yeted Ne’eman, the unnamed couple offered to “name their fourth child after a good man” with the honor going to the highest bidder. Within days, the ‘position’ was filled…for an unnamed sum.
Last but not least, the Best Only-in-Israel Story goes this year to a group of fertility specialists – OB-GYNs Ronit Kochman, Ariel Horwitz and Eli Mimon. Taking Israelis’ unbridled propensity for frankness and striking up conversations with total strangers one step too far, the threesome waded into TA’s anything-goes (well, almost-anything-goes) nightlife to strike up conversations with the café and bistro crowd and tell single women over a cold beer about the possible repercussions of enjoying their carefree Thirties – sparking an uproar. Actually, the well-meaning in-your-face physicians not only wanted to remind the women that their biological clocks were ticking. They also wanted to make sure the ladies knew freezing one’s eggs in a timely fashion was included in the basket of services covered under Israel’s National Compulsory Health Insurance Law.
Daniella Ashkenazy is a seasoned bilingual Israeli journalist and founder of The Chelm Project whose columns are published twice a month at www.chelm-on-the-med.com, dedicated to transforming preconceptions of Israel – one chuckle at a time.