Israel Through Its Cab Drivers
David recently went on a trip to Israel with his father. Here is a brief reflection of his time there. More will follow.
My father and I had arranged for a cab to take us from Rehovot to Tel Aviv. The morning he was scheduled to pick us up, the cab driver called and asked: “Is it ok if I bring my cousin?” Only in Israel.
The cab driver, it turned out, was a Jew of Yemenite origin. His “cousin” was in fact a cousin through marriage, an Ashkenazi Jewish woman and Holocaust survivor from Romania. Yet another example of the blended families that make up the Jewish melting pot that represents the majority of Israeli society.
I’m nor sure what, if anything, cab drivers as a category can tell you about Israeli society. They used to have quite a bit of political clout, and in the 1990s they even had a political party. The drivers themselves, almost universally male, have a weird, somewhat sleazy reputation: years ago I recall a cab driver trying charge me extra for turning on the air conditioning. Whereas in New York it seems the vast majority of cab drivers are foreign born, that doesn’t seem to be the case in Israel, though of course drivers are both Jewish and Arab.
Our first important cab driver, a man we’ll call Shmuel, took us around East Jerusalem and the old city. Though he asked if we wanted to go to the Kotel (Wailing Wall), my father and I had already been on the first eve of our trip, and on every trip before that. Why was this visit to Israel different than every other visit to Israel? This one, we’d be seeing some non-Jewish sites. Still, Shmuel insisted that we at least see something sheh-lanu (of ours). You see, Shmuel was an observant Jew, modern, with a knitted yarmulke on his head. In fact, he pointed out that he was the only Jewish cab driver for his company. The rest were all Arabs. Except the owner of the company. He was Jewish too.
In addition to being a good cab driver, Shmuel was a knowledgeable tour guide, of both Jewish and Arab sites. He spoke Hebrew, English, and some Arabic. He was of Iraqi origin, though his family had come to what was then Palestine over 115 years ago. In another post, I’ll discuss all the places he took us.
A few days later, in Tel Aviv, we took a ride with the most colourful cab driver yet. Let’s call him Yossi. He too was of Iraqi origin, but he was more secular. Some of the first words out of his mouth were criticizing the haredim, the ultra-Orthodox Jews who have such a big influence in Israeli politics and life. “God doesn’t care about their peyes? God cares what’s in your heart!” He exclaimed. I don’t believe in God but I couldn’t really argue.
Then the topic of conversation became even more political, and Yossi provided evidence that secularism was no indication of sanity in Israeli politics. Perhaps foolishly, we asked him about the potential for the Israeli/Palestinian peace talks being organized by John Kerry. Yossi had no hope for the peace talks. He expected the Palestinians to all be expelled to Jordan, and he seemed to have no problem with that outcome.
He also had some not-so-nice things to say about the non-Jewish African foreign workers in Israel. He called them cushim, a derogatory term in Hebrew for Black, and seemed at least implicitly to distinguish them from the Ethiopian Jewish citizens of Israel, who he presumably liked better. He thought the African foreign workers would soon all be deported as well.
But the most interesting part of the conversation emerged when we asked him what languages he spoke besides Hebrew. English, he said, some Arabic, and Thai. Wait, Thai? “Why do you speak Thai?” We asked. “My wife is Thai,” he replied. Not a Thai foreign worker, mind you. Yossi had gone to Thailand, fallen in love, married a Thai woman, and brought her back to Israel. They had three children together. Those half Iraqi-Jewish half-Thai Hebrew-speaking children are Jewish in the eyes of Reform and Reconstructionist rabbis, but probably not most Conservative ones and certainly not the Orthodox. They will one day be Jewish enough to serve in the Israeli army, but not Jewish enough to be buried at the Jewish military cemetery on Mount Herzl were they to be killed in action.
We asked Yossi if his wife, who spoke perfect Hebrew, had converted. They’d been trying, he said, but it was very difficult. Conversion to Judaism in Israel is held under Orthodox supervision, and the rules are very strictly enforced. Meanwhile, the local government in Tel Aviv called on her whenever they needed an interpreter for the community of Thai workers there.
After all that information, my father and I were bewildered. By then, the ride was over. As we left the cab, Yossi offered us a parting gift. He had enjoyed the conversation, and so he gave us something we could enjoy: his self-produced CD of Mizrachi (eastern/oriental) Jewish music. Only in Israel.