Everyone who has ever asked for directions in Israel knows that Israelis love to say yashar yashar, loosely translated as “keep going straight.” For me, it will always carry a much deeper meaning.
It happened in the spring of 1980, on a warm Friday afternoon. Three of us yeshiva students at Yeshivat Shaalvim were traveling for Shabbat. Jonathan Zelinger and I were heading to our mutual cousin, Sarah, in Bnei Brak; Alan Kestenbaum was on his way to friends in Petach Tikva.
This happened at a time when hitchhiking was still safe in Israel. We left the yeshiva with our backpacks and hiked a well-worn path to Highway 1, the main route between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. We were located approximately halfway to Tel Aviv. now it was a matter of waiting for a driver who would be willing to stop for three fairly innocent-looking hitchhikers. We did not have to wait very long. Ten minutes into our wait, a very sleek Peugeot sports car zoomed off the road onto the shoulder of the highway and screeched to a halt right near where we were standing, sending up a spray of gravel. I noticed immediately that all the windows were wide open.
We waited for the driver to welcome us into his vehicle with the classic “L’an atem tzrichim?” – “Where do you need to go?” Instead, he was stone silent and stared directly ahead gripping the leather-covered steering wheel with both hands. He seemed to be waiting for us to enter.
We looked at one another, shrugged and Alan opened the front door and sat down next to the driver, while Jonathan and I sat in the back with me on the left and him on the right.
The driver did not acknowledge us in any way Without a word, he stepped on the gas and the car leaped back onto the highway with a throaty growl. We were thrown back into our seats and watched the speedometer rapidly move to 160 kilometers per hour, around 100 mph.
The silent driver handled his car expertly, weaving to and fro and passing other fast cars as if they were standing still. He never touched the brakes. The three of us looked at each other, clutched at our seatbelts, and started praying like we never prayed before.
Awed as we were by his driving prowess, we began to wonder if he’d ever ask we were going. It was time to speak up, or else end up in the wrong place.
“S’lach li (excuse me),” I said.
The man glanced at me in his rearview mirror. I couldn’t believe how thick his dark glasses were.
“Shnainu tzrichim lihagiya l’Bnai Brak” – “We both need to go to Bnei Brak,” I said, pointing to Jonathan.
Alan added, ‘V’ani tzarich lihagiya l’Petach Tikva” – “And I need to get to Petach Tikva.”
The man nodded wordlessly, stepped on the gas, and deftly ascended the ramp to Highway 4, which heads north to both cities. A short time later we were approaching Messubim Junction near Bar Ilan University. We were still going 100 miles an hour.
The man cleared his throat. We couldn’t believe we’d get to hear him speak after all this time driving in total silence.
“Atem b’achora….tairdu batzomet v’sham yesh autobusim l’Vnei Brak” – “You in the back – get off at the junction, and there are the buses to Bnai Brak.” His voice was surprisingly raspy. It was hard to hear him with the windows still open all the way, and all that air rushing in.
He began to slow down and moved into the center lane – we were now doing 80.
“Atah,” (you), he said, nodding at Alan. Alan looked over at him expectantly. The man was now doing 70.
“Atah tairade sham” – “You get off there” he said, pointing to the right. “V’tailaich yashar yashar” – “and go straight.”
For many Israelis, yashar yashar is accompanied by a chopping hand motion that starts by the right ear and ends in front of the body. The silent driver was no different. Except for one thing.
When he did the required hand motion, his right hand accidentally got stuck under the right temple of his sunglasses, knocking them clear out of his window.
Everything happened so fast. He slammed on the brakes and came to a screeching halt. We all flew forward, straining our blessed seatbelts, and were then forced back into our chairs as other cars honked furiously at us, their drivers looking menacingly at us as they were forced to pass.
The driver looked at us sheepishly. A huge red mark covered the bridge of his nose, where the heavy glasses had been resting. He looked so vulnerable all of the sudden.
The three of us were flabbergasted. After a few seconds, we started laughing. Uproariously. For three full minutes. I was literally rolling in my seat, tears running down my face. It hurt after a while. We could not even speak, it was so funny. The driver couldn’t help but laugh with us.
Suddenly, he said “Hamishkafayim sheli!” – “My glasses!”
Oh, those. Judging from their thickness, they appeared to be prescription sunglasses. I wondered how well he could see without them.
I wanted to be helpful, and said “Ani avi otam” – “I’ll get them.” They were still intact, around 30 feet behind us.
I opened the left back door, and staggered out of the car, still giggling at the absurd situation. I started making my way to retrieve the glasses, and – BOOM! – a heavy truck ran them over, smashing them to bits.
I bent down to scrape the remains of the sunglasses into my hand, and came back to the car, showing the driver what was left of them.
“Mah, nishberu?” – “They broke?” said the man.
He then told us he could not see without them. I offered to drive until the intersection, but he stubbornly refused. He said he could go that far, and then he’d contact his wife on a payphone (1980, remember) to come and get him.
We thanked him profusely for the ride, and made our way to our final destinations for Shabbos.
The driver had been so confident moments earlier, as he weaved the powerful sedan in and out of traffic. He was the King of the Road, or so he thought.
But with a single accidental motion of his hand, he was reduced instantly to a tired, helpless man unable to drive more than a block.
Not much of a king, after all.
It would never be the same for me after that.
I’m telling you straight.
Shlomo Horwitz is the founding director of Jewish Crossroads, an educational theater project that has provided creative Torah programming across the US, Canada, England and Israel. He studied at Yeshivat Shaalvim and Yeshivat Ner Yisrael in Baltimore, where he received ordination from Rabbi Yaakov Weinberg. Shlomo is a CPA and a director of a consulting firm near Washington, DC. He can be reached through his site, www.jewishcrossroads.com.
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.