Redemption and a New York Taxi Ride

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31 Mar 2009

When you get into a taxi in New York City you never know what’s going to happen. Every urban traveler knows that within each of the myriad of cabs crisscrossing the city, resides a whole world–usually a world much different than your own. The driver’s country of origin, accent, personal hygiene, speed preferences; they’re all variables and the passenger is at their mercy. When I caught the cab on Sixth Avenue and Sixteenth Street I was expecting to come away with an emptier wallet, not a fuller heart. But that’s New York and that’s G-d.

When I slid into the seat of the yellow cab the driver immediately informed me that his machine wasn’t running any credit cards. No problem this time, I happened to be in the money. So I assured him I had the cash and we were good to go. I commiserated with him, “Must be tough if you can’t take cards.”

This guy was a talker and, having been given the opening, now he was good to go. I heard about the sassy girl, laden with bags from Bed, Bath and Beyond who swiped her card and it was declined. She didn’t have money, friends or any options. While he argued with her, two little old lady bystanders called the cops.

“Maybe she just got caught short,” I offered, surreptitiously checking my bag to make sure I really had the twenty that I thought I had put in earlier that day.

“Nah! She was stealing. She was fresh I tell you. The cops saw it too. Told me they would arrest her if I wanted. The old ladies, they were yelling ‘Arrest her! Arrest her!’ She was fresh.”

“What did you do?” I had never imagined that the life of a cab driver could be so gripping.

“I let her go. She was no good.”

I agreed with him. “Yea. I would have too. Just because she was rotten, no reason you should be.”

He didn’t seem to need my philosophical read on the matter. He continued with a story about a man and his wife and two little girls that stiffed him for a fare and a young businessman who just jumped out of the car at a red light.

“Once I picked up three people from La Guardia. Took them deep into Brooklyn, not a nice neighborhood, very tough. Two of them got off first and then I went a few more blocks and dropped of the last guy. He tells me he got no money.”

“That’s a big fare. What did you do?”

“Sixty-five, seventy bucks. I’m not stupid. I told him ‘Okay. You got no money, its okay. What am I goin’ to do to you? I’m on your street; I can’t fight you for the money. You got friends; I’m not goin’ to get beat up.’ But I told him…” and here the driver peered at me from the rear view mirror and slowed the car down for emphasis. I checked my watch furtively and he continued, “…I told him, ‘Don’t you ever come into Manhattan… I’ll get you.’”

“Come on,” I protested. “You never saw him again, right?”

“It took me one year,” he nodded decisively. “I saw him walking down Third. I never forget a face. I parked the car and crossed the street and came down from the other side. I punched him right over the side of his head. He was down, man. Never saw it coming.”

“What?!” I squawked. “You just slugged him? Right in the street? You weren’t scared the police were going to come down on you or anything?”

“Me?! Scared?!” The driver reared in his seat. “I’m a NAVAJO! I ain’t scared of NOTHING! NOTHING! Navajo’s are strong people. You don’t mess with us.”

After this exciting statement there was not much I could add, but I had noticed his accent and after a few minutes I told him, “I heard you pronounce ‘Navajo’ with a ‘Chh’ sound on the ‘H’. You know, we Jews also have that sound in our language.” And here’s where a standard trip through Lower Manhattan took a surreal turn.

“Yea. My wife says it too. She’s Jewish. Her family came way back from Spain. Five hundred years ago, they came to Mexico. Been in Mexico for hundreds of years.”

Way back from Spain, five hundred years ago! I gawked mentally. I imagined Jews running from Spain, ending up in Mexico, saving their lives and effectively putting an end to their heritage. My mind dredged up long ignored facts. The banishment of Spanish Jewry by Ferdinand and Isabella. The terrible days of the Spanish Inquisition. How many times have I heard the history lessons and done the homework with my kids? But I never thought of it as real.

Here’s the kicker. As an Orthodox Jew I pray for redemption every day. I pray for an end to the Diaspora. But when I envision a redemption, my mind can only wrap itself around our generation’s travails and our need to be redeemed. If I stretch a little, l think of hardships of recent history; of Jews trapped in Middle Eastern countries or held in religious captivity in old Russia. And then, of course, thoughts of the Holocaust are always close to the surface. That’s as far back as I can go.

But Spain? I stared at the back of the driver’s head. This Navaho Indian cab driver whizzing down the F.D.R. Drive has Jewish children. How many generations have been lost here? How many souls unaccounted for? Just think of the numbers! Could it be that the Jewish nation is still bleeding from terror that always seemed to me to be a distant chapter in history?

“You know, your kids are Jewish,” I offered him. “You should tell them.”

The driver smiled and softened visibly with the mention of his family. “For me, they can be what they want, you know. As long as they’re good people.”

The ride ended with an overview of his grandkids and other assorted relatives. He was taking his wife to Israel for the first time. He had been there five times already but she had never wanted to go.

“The rates are good now,” I told him. “You should book now.”

“Yea,” he assured me, “it’s not so expensive. You go, you stay with family, not much money. My wife’s got cousins there.”

I wished him well, paid my fare and as I slammed the car door behind me I hoped that there was a kid with dark skin and Navaho blood sitting somewhere in Israel with a Gemara in front of him. Just to reclaim some souls from those rotten Spaniards.

Nissan, the month of redemption, is here and I think I might just go into it with a new slant. May we merit experiencing the Redemption. A Final Redemption that relieves the trials not only of this generation, but one that resolves the sufferings of history.

Chag Kasher V’Sameach.

Baila Rosenbaum is a freelance writer and editor living in Manhattan. Her work has been published by Targum Press, Judaica Press, in Mishpacha Magazine and Horizons..

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.