The "shiputznik" phenomenon - an Israeli saga

There are various causes that necessitate the human desire never to leave well enough alone. Op-ed.

Rabbi Berel Wein ,

Home repair
Home repair
Aaron Friedman

One of the accepted experiences here in Israeli life, and I suspect that it is also the situation in Jewish life generally throughout the world, is the necessity to invest time, money, and the accompanying aggravation into what is euphemistically called “home-improvement”.

There are various causes that necessitate the human desire never to leave well enough alone. There is, therefore, an unwritten law that demands that the apartments and homes that we live in be redone every decade or two. Since this is a complicated job, only a few fortunate individuals amongst us can undertake this task themselves.

Our generation is no longer famous for being carpenters or plumbers, when we wish that our progeny should become hedge fund managers or academics of note. So, especially here in Israel, Jewish society has created a new type of professional person known as a “shiputznik” - a contractor that undertakes to supervise and sometimes even rebuild our existing home and apartment. This person does not do any of the actual work of itself. He is not a carpenter or a plumber, an electrician, or a mason. However, he has assembled a crew of people who do possess these skills, and he supervises them in the work necessary to be done, to transform one's own home or apartment from what it was to what we want it to be.

As in every walk of life, there those who are very good at their tasks and reliable as to their word, and, unfortunately, there are others as well. In the legend of Israeli society, it is the unkempt, unscrupulous, and discourteous “shiputznik” who takes center stage as far as legend and urban tales are concerned.

It is obvious that this is not really the case. Both empirically and statistically, it can be proven, repeatedly, the worth, honesty and goodness of most Israeli “shiputzniks.” But usually, it is good, honest people who are the unfinished, raw material for the genre of legends. Yet, there are certain traits of the Middle Eastern home-improvement contractors ubiquitous, even amongst the best of them.

The first is that the job is never quite completely finished. The last two or three percent of the work and improvement is usually left for the owner to somehow complete by himself. This practice is so widespread that it is almost inevitable, when embarking on a home improvement project in one's abode.

Time of completion is also somewhat flexible, for there are always very good reasons why the original time schedule can never be met. A looming intifada, God forbid, weeklong Moslem holidays, the advent of the Jewish new year, and of the Passover season, the Corona health crisis, and other such sundry occurrences in the Israeli lifestyle, always seem to interfere with the completion of the work during the time allotted and promised. And, since we live in a hot climate, things occur more slowly than they would apparently seem to transpire in different parts of the world. But never fret over the little things, since the “shiputznik” will eventually take care of the larger issues in the home improvement project.

There are many reasons why people embark on home improvement. A burst pipe, a collapsed wall, and a faulty electrical system will necessitate the compulsory home-improvement work. Usually, however, whenever there is a major issue that needs to be addressed, the owner of the home or apartment will now take the opportunity to redo the entire apartment. Bathrooms that are 30 years old still accomplish their given purpose, but in our age, bathrooms are so constructed and designed as to hide and obfuscate what that purpose is. The 30-year-old kitchen still is fully capable of producing food and meals on a regular basis. However, after a certain period, people feel that is impossible to function in proper dignity with an old kitchen and old appliances.

To help guarantee that one will always be able to be in the swing of things, in addition to coping with the disappointment that there are no longer parts that can be purchased to repair appliances which are decades-old, a new set of appliances must be purchased. In fact, the appliance industry is based on the supposition that all kitchen appliances will be renewed every 10 to 15 years. It has been my experience in life that sometimes the older appliances were still working well, and, in fact, are easier to use and more productive than their new shiny replacement.

But one can never resist the rule of change and of newness. Hence, the ever-present “shiputznik,” lurking just around the corner, eagerly awaiting our inevitable call.

Rabbi Berel Wein is a noted scholar, historian, speaker and educator, admired the world over for his audio tapes/CDs, videos and books, particularly on Jewish history. After many years serving as a community rabbi in Monsey, NY, he made aliya and is rabbi of Beit Knesset Hanassi in Jerusalem.



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