Two headlines dominated a page of The Marker, the economic section of the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, on January 29. The first, captioning a straight news item, read (in my English translation): “Hershkovitz Stuns Finance Ministry: Fires Deputy.” The second, introducing a commentary on this development by correspondent Nehemia Strassler, declared: “Instead of Tackling Problems — Blame the Shin-gimmel.”
For you Forward readers, this needs some footnoting. “Hershkovitz” is Gal Hershkovitz, director of the ministry of finance’s budget division.
The deputy he fired was Eyal Epstein, the economist responsible for the budget figures that the ministry presents to the government of Israel and the Knesset. He was fired because of the unexpectedly huge deficit that the government ran in 2012, which will now lead to higher taxes and to slashes in public expenditures. “Blame the shin-gimmel” — ah, that’s a bit more complicated.
The Hebrew letters shin-gimmel stand for the words shomer g’dudi, “battalion guard.” That doesn’t mean very much in English, but every Israeli knows what a shin-gimmel is: He’s the soldier who sits in a little booth by the gate to a military base and lets no one unauthorized enter. He inspects the papers of anyone he can’t identify by sight and raises and lowers the barrier that bars or admits motor vehicles.
It’s not a thrilling or highly skilled job, which is why it’s usually assigned to the lowliest soldiers on a base. The four-hour shifts of it that I remember from my weeks of basic training were not the high points of my military career. They did, though, include one memorable incident. Late one night, a car with a military license and two passengers drove up to the barrier at which I was the shin-gimmel.
I waited, as I was supposed to do, for the driver, whose face I couldn’t make out, to present his credentials. He honked. I waited some more. He honked again. I stuck to my guns. He stepped out of the car and shouted at me to open the gate. He was, he said, the boyfriend of the base commander’s daughter, whom he was bringing home from a date. He was also, I realized at that exact moment, a cousin of mine, a pilot in the air force. We had a good laugh and met again at the wedding.