“But officer, this was not deliberate. I am innocent. The one-way sign was blocked by the trees. I never saw it.” I am telling the truth, but the officer is unimpressed. He writes out my traffic ticket.
Two years later, on a different Jerusalem street, an identical blocked sign, an identical unimpressed officer, and an identical traffic ticket. After having driven 40 years in the USA without a single ticket, here in the space of a few years I am starting a veritable collection of them.
In the mail comes a personalized letter from the Office of Transportation, inviting me to attend a special three-day, 12-hour driving school to improve my driving skills. The cordiality of the invitation is somewhat mitigated by the polite reminder that non-attendance could result in the revocation of my driver’s license.
So here I am at driving school, and I am learning many new things —not only about driving safety, but about non-religious Israelis.
For three days I am thrown together with all kinds of Israelis from every level of society. In my class of 35, there are one Arab, two hareidim, and four knitted yarmulke types. The rest, a full 80% of the group, are Israelis, both men and women who seem on first blush to have no connection with a religious way of life. It is a strange, new world. A few men are sporting earrings and tattoos, all are wearing tee shirts and jeans, and none of the women are dressed in a manner that could be described as even remotely modest. What would be considered provocative in a religious neighborhood is here considered de rigueur, and what in a religious area is considered modest dress would here be out of place. And everyone – young and old, men and women, religious and non-religious – seems to be smoking.
Other than the fact that Hebrew is the language we all share, this could be Italy or Spain or Greece. The only other connection we seem to have with one another is that each of us had violated some traffic laws. We were all Israelis and Jews (except for one Arab), but on the surface, my compatriots and I, for better or for worse, seem to have nothing in common.
Well, I found myself thinking, is this not what the Zionist founders wanted: to shed the shackles of Judaism, the small-mindedness of the shtetl, to become citizens of the world?
But during the three days, as I chit-chat with many of them, I discover just how unfair I was in my assessment. At the end of the first day, the tough, wizened, and completely secular instructor says good night and adds that he will see us tomorrow, “Im yirtze Hashem, with the will of God.” Even if it was automatic, I did not expect such a religious expression to pass through his lips, but there it was. And he said it like he meant it.
In the small café on the premises, I reach out to buy an ice cream cone. The non-religious proprietor stays my hand. “I don’t think you want this; it has no hechsher (no kosher certification).” Perhaps it is my beard and black yarmulke, but during a break one classmate confesses wistfully that his teen-age sons all seem to be going off in unhealthy directions, that he longs for some religious anchor for them and wishes that there were some place for non-religious families to learn about Torah values.
I’ve been too harsh, too quick to judge by external appearances.
Beneath all the disguises, these are my spiritual brothers and sisters, each with his genuine Yiddishe neshama, Jewish soul. I’ve been too harsh, too quick to judge by external appearances. These are good people, helpful and considerate Jews who are very respectful of, and curious about, genuine and sincere religious behavior. It occurs to me that my classmates are simply creatures of their environment, products of schools and teachers who themselves knew nothing about Judaism and imparted that nothingness to their charges. But underneath their exteriors, they seem quite open and ready to respond to sensitive and sympathetic teaching and examples.
Just as I have never been exposed to this aspect of Israeli society, so have they never been exposed to the religious component that is so integral a part of Jerusalem and Israel. If one could dig a bit beneath the surface of these folks, one would discover a love and a respect and openness toward our mutual Jewish heritage. What a pity that there are so very few people around who care enough and are talented enough to do the digging.
What I re-learned from the course, beyond driving safety and some new Hebrew terms, was that it is helpful to occasionally emerge from the social cocoon in which one finds himself, and to seek out people and groups who are not exactly like oneself. This could be mutually beneficial and spiritually broadening. But along the way, try not to drive the wrong way on one-way streets. Someone, I promise you, is always watching. If not the traffic cop, Someone Else.