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Things that are weird in Israel #6: Cracking the Sherut Code

IMG_00004022 This is one of the big cliches about Israeli life, so I kind of feel bad even mentioning it.  But not bad enough to not mention it, and here’s why - because I’ve finally cracked the code! 

(Sort of – I’ll explain in a minute.)

The sherut, monit sherut, or shared taxi-van, was actually our very FIRST Israel experience, way back when, on our ill-fated trip to Yerushalayim five years ago.  It’s almost everybody’s first Israel experience – you get off the plane, wander stunned out of the airport and into the hands of a guy who, for 50 shekel, will stuff you into an oddly curtained van with a bunch of other stunned passengers, heading into Yerushalayim or wherever you happen to be going.  (price may vary!)

Then you doze a bit and, eventually, the driver tells you you’re there, and you fall wearily out of the van with your luggage.

Sherut = “shared” = Service

Monit SherutSo that’s the sherut.  Easy to remember because, although the word means “service” in Hebrew, it sounds like “shared” in English.  It’s a taxi, that you SHARE, with a bunch of smelly in-transit strangers.

Here in the Krayot, however, there are other little yellow “service taxis” that are vans, albeit more run-down (still with the tacky curtains), that ramble around on regular, predetermined routes.  

(This grizzled guy in the picture?  That’s exactly who drives every single one of these – except the one time I got a female driver.)

These are almost like buses, and in fact, run mainly along well-travelled bus routes.  Ever since we got here, I’ve been trying to figure out why people take them instead of the regular buses.

In my head, I even made up this short list to compare the two:

City Bus Monit Sherut
Comes less often, (sort of) on a schedule Comes more often, whenever it feels like
Many passengers, luggage, standing room if full Only 10 passengers, no standing room
Easy to enter with stroller/shopping Harder to enter with stroller/shopping, plus nasty glares from other passengers if you are carrying much more than a handbag.
Stops at stops Stops anywhere, usually with a screech and the thud of a dying cat.
Accepts transit pass (Rav Kav) or cash Takes cash only, preferably small change or they’ll yell at you.
Discount if you buy 10 fares Can’t buy multiple fares ever ever ever
Discount for kids’ fares No discount for anyone; don’t even ask or they’ll yell at you.
Transfer free to any other buses / metronit in the krayot for a full 90 minutes No transfer to anything else ever; don’t even ask or they’ll yell at you.
Full price 6.90nis Full price 6.90nis… or so I thought!

You can see that city bus is coming out waaaaay ahead, financially, except for one thing.  See that last item?  Here’s what I just learned two weeks ago:

The monit sherut only costs full fare if you’re going the longest distance!!

Remember I said I’d cracked the code?  That’s the code! 

If you’re not going all the way, the fares are on a sliding scale.  From our house to the ulpan or the library where I volunteer (too lazy to walk sometimes!) only costs 3 shekels, instead of nearly 7 for the bus.  That’s about a buck. 

For a dollar, especially if I’m running late, especially if I’m not going somewhere else immediately afterwards, it’s sometimes worth it.

So, in answer to my question (it only took 6 months to figure out!):

Why do people take the monit sherut? 

Because they…

  • a) are going too far to walk,
  • b) are going somewhere directly on the sherut’s route,
  • c) aren’t transferring anywhere afterwards, and probably
  • d) aren’t going far enough to want to pay full fare.  They may also
  • e) want to catch a bus at a screeching halt in the middle of a block (or get off in the middle of a block) rather than walking from a more distant bus stop.

I did say the little sherut buses come more often, but that’s not always true.  Just like the feral cats all over the place here, they come and go whenever they please.

One more fun thing about the sherut:  drivers are in a BIG hurry. 

Time is money, but only if they’re driving.  So they don’t want your money when you get in.  They want your money while they’re driving, because then, money is money (or something).  Drive, drive, drive:  it’s their prime directive.

So you sit down first (unless you want to get yelled at) and discuss niceties about where you’re going and how much it costs later.  Which is nerve-wracking if you’re only going a few “stops,” because you don’t have long to take care of the entire transaction – especially if the driver doesn’t realize the city has a library and where it might be.

Usually, you shout to the driver (over his blaring music or a Russian newscast) where you’re going, he shouts back the fare, then you begin the process of “passing” the money. 

The Ritual of “Passing” the Money.

Don’t stand up!  Just hand your money over to the person in front of you.  They pass it to the person in front of them, and so on, all the way up to the driver.  Then, whatever’s left of your money after your fare has been deducted comes wending its way back to you via the same sweaty palms who passed it up in the first place.

Each participant murmurs the code to the next in line:  “ta’avir la nehag” (for a girl, “ta’avri la nehag”).  Everybody knows what’s going on, but they still say it – it’s a magical incantation to keep the money safe on its journey. 

(In ulpan, we learned to say “timsor / tims’ri la nehag,” which is technically correct – but so, in English, is adding the phrase “good fellow” when asking your best buddy to do you a favour.  You can say it, but normal folks will think you’re odd.)

Anyway, it doesn’t matter if it’s five shekels you’re passing, or five hundred, you WILL get your change.  This passing is not considered a “nicety,” as it would be where I come from.  (Okay, in Toronto it would probably be considered an extreme “weirdity” to hand a stranger a 100-dollar bill to give the driver.)

Passing the money is as mandatory as if you were at the dinner table and someone asked you to pass the water pitcher.

If you don’t like handling other people’s sweaty change, you could try positioning yourself near the back of the sherut to avoid this weirdity.  But I’m still at the stage where I find it charming – plus, with only 10 seats, there’s usually no choice left.

So what’s the plural of sherut???

If you know anything about Hebrew, you’ll know that the plural of sherut is “sherutim,” but you’d be wrong, because that means bathroom

Because its full name is “monit sherut” (service taxi), the proper plural is “moniyot sherut” (service taxis).  Or, as Elisheva loves to say in her fake-broad Ashkenazi accent, “moniyos sherus.”  Apparently, they’re also referred to as “monit special.”

Have you had an exciting sherut experience?  Share it here!!!

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