Vitamin P

Some decades ago, I was trying to get something done in a local government office in Israel. I say “get something done” rather than “do something,” because I really mean “get something taken care of.” In Israeli offices, you rarely “do” something. You get it taken care of.

While I was waiting for my contact to press the right buttons, a co-worker complained to him about a questionable piece of guile he had just pulled off. She said, using a Hebrew expression imported from Yiddish, “Zeh foyle shtik — this is flimflammery.” That’s a loose translation. Foyle shtik is literally something like lazy gimmicks.

Taking a pose of mock umbrage, my contact said, “Of course it’s foyle shtik. Otherwise, I wouldn’t be doing it!”

Among the mysteries and miracles of the existence of the State of Israel is the fact that the Soviet Union was the second country to recognize the new state. Actually, Russia was the first country to give de jure (by right of law) recognition. U.S. President Harry Truman gave de facto (factual, though not legally official) recognition minutes after the declaration of the state. Official, de jure, recognition from Congress did not come until January 31, 1949.

The enmity of the Soviet Union for Jews (and Israel, in particular) is a matter of bitter historical record. Why in the world were they first to jump in to recognize the Jewish State?

One theory is that the Russians hoped that the socialist-led government of David Ben Gurion would come within their sphere of influence. Kibbutzniks and Minsker-Pinsker apparatchiks were promising prospects for the workers’ paradise.

But, to paraphrase Robert Burns, a Jew’s a Jew, for all that. Conforming to socialism — or to any rigid system — isn’t in our DNA. We need to be able to flex and give a kratz, if not a krechtz.

On a deeper level, a Yiddishe neshamah aspires to more than dialectical (or any) materialism. The pintele Yid pokes holes in boxes. As an old proverb says, “Gei shatz up a Yiddishe kishke — go figure a Jewish gut.”

But at least one Russian influence remained fixed in Israel. If socialism took only partial root, socializing is a verdant forest of tangled roots and intertwined vines and branches. It’s industrial-strength networking.

More vital than the vitamin C of Jaffa oranges, more vital than the vitamin D and carbs of milk and honey … is the vitamin P of protekzia. Vitamin P is the antibody that builds up the individual’s immune system to the disorder of bureaucracy.

Protekzia is a Russian import to Hebrew by way of Yiddish. It is defined as connections, favoritism, pulling strings, nepotism, influence peddling, patronage and more. Protekzia has many related meanings. But that’s the point — it’s all about relations.

In Milon HaSlang Hamakif (Comprehensive Slang Dictionary), Ruvik Rosenthal defines protekzia as granting preferential treatment to relations; favoritism. He also has an entry for Vitamin P (spelled in Hebrew letters), which he defines as favors for close friends.

You can’t buy protekzia. Not the real kind, anyway. It’s uncouth to sell influence. It’s a favor. What don’t you do for a friend? And chaveirim kol Yisrael.

So where do you get protekzia? They don’t carry vitamin P in pharmacies. You have to go to a macher — a provider of protekzia, a finagler of foyle shtik.

Macher is another Yiddish import into Hebrew. In The Joys of Yiddish, Leo Rosten defines macher: “Someone who arranges, fixes, has connections; a big wheel; an ‘operator.’”

A macher is a mafia godfather, minus the violence and criminal corruption.

Rosten defined a macher, “The man who could miraculously produce a visa, or provide immigration papers, or get an exit permit for a Jew.”

There are levels of macher: “A ‘gontser macher’ means a real operator, a real big shot.” But you have to watch out for smug humbugs who think they’re big machers. Those are k’nockers — showoffs and self-promoters. “Machers can be k’nockers, if they boast about their exploits (real machers don’t).”

But not every wannabe macher is a k’nocker. He or she might just be a kochleffl — literally a long, wooden cooking spoon for stirring big pots. A figurative kochleffl mixes into everybody’s business. It’s “a live wire, go-getter organizer, activist, promoter; someone who stirs things and people up.”

A noted philanthropist and macher was blessed with self-deprecating humor. At a graduation ceremony of the yeshivah where he was president, he told about a man who ordered a glass of tea in a restaurant. When the waiter brought his tea, the man took his spoon, mixed the tea and started to drink.

The waiter asked, “But sir, you didn’t put in any sugar. Why are you mixing it?”

“I’m a yeshivah president,” he answered. “I like to mix in, but I don’t like to put anything in.”


 

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