At 8 a.m, I waited sleepily next to Route 3 for bus 192 into New York, third in a line of commuters. In front of me a businessman hauling a valise on rollers, his bad comb-over blowing straight up in the gusts from the trucks roaring by. In front of him, an Indian woman wrapped head to toe in bright orange and yellow flowing fabric, thin sandals on her feet and a scowl on her face. Behind me, a teenager with numerous bits of metal stuck into his face and a t-shirt that loudly directed the reader to bite him.
In case you don’t know, Route 3 is in New Jersey.
The bus came, I climbed on, flashed my monthly pass, and sat down in the first seat available, directly behind the driver, next to a lady in the window seat. Following the Code of Bus Commuting Etiquette, she straightened her skirt slightly to ensure I wouldn’t sit on it as I sat down, not otherwise acknowledging my existence. And for my part, I plopped down without swinging my heavy backpack into her face. I placed it on the floor between my legs, likewise ignoring her existence, pushed the seat back a few inches – ignoring the existence of the person behind me – and pulled out my little siddur to finish up some of my morning davening, or prayers. I had 30 minutes, 45 with traffic.
That’s when I noticed the rosary beads.
The woman next to me had rosaries on her lap. Was she a nun?
The woman next to me had them on her lap, running them through her fingers. Was she a nun? I didn’t want to violate the Code, so I couldn’t just turn and look. I also didn’t want to distract myself from my davening for too long. (How long is too long? I think it’s similar to the five-second rule for eating food you dropped on the floor – a moment is okay, after that you’re asking for trouble.)
Then I noticed the plastic divider in front of me, which separated us from the driver (affording him protection from spitballs, if nothing else). It was reflective, and I could see my seatmate perfectly well in it without having to turn.
She was middle-aged, dressed conservatively, her nondescript features notable only for the intensity of her expression, her lips moving in fervent prayer. Was she a nun on holiday, and thus out of her habit and habitat, or just a holy roller on her way to work? Was she even now praying for the return of Jerusalem to the Church’s hands? Had she noticed me with my siddur and added in a few prayers for the salvation of my soul? Or maybe its damnation! After all, she’d no doubt been taught that someone in my family had killed her Lord. Even though her Lord was actually someone in my family.
And maybe she hadn’t started praying fervently until she saw me sitting next to her. Maybe she saw this as a test from God! Would she have the right reaction when she found herself stuck next to a Jew?
That ticked me off. Was it right to stereotype and scapegoat me? Hadn’t my people suffered enough? Did I have to be subjected to this? I was just a guy on a bus!
I tried to go back to my siddur, but I could see those hands working the rosary beads out of the corner of my eye, and I could sense those lips going a mile a minute, spewing who knows what. Well, okay, lady, I thought, maybe this is a test from God to see if I have the right reaction! How about I throw in some prayers for your soul? How about we have a nice debate and pick apart your faulty theology?
I was mulling this over, thinking about a good opening crack, when I was struck by another thought. If I can see her, she can see me. And she can see me looking at her – and not davening. Better get those lips moving, buddy, you don’t want to give this religious nut a leg up on feeling superior.
That’s when I noticed that in the reflection in front of me I could also see everyone behind me. The guy with the comb-over, the woman with the scowl, the kid with the hardware. And if I could see them, they could see me. Us! So now the stakes were higher. Now we were a couple of ambassadors of two great religions, playing out in miniature the confrontation that had consumed the Western world for two millennia, the Cross and the Star, Jacob and Esau, the Lamb of God and the Lion of Yehuda – all performed in 30 minutes, 45 with traffic.
I flipped through the siddur looking for the Psalm with that good stuff about God smiting your enemies, wondering how far you have to be from someone getting hit by lightning to be safe. It’s a tight fit on those bus seats.
I was still mouthing some words from the siddur when my brain re-engaged momentarily and focused on what I was reading. “God is close to all who call upon Him, to all who call upon Him sincerely.”
I stopped. I turned to look at Saint Agnes, who was now looking out the window, a serene expression on her face, her hands still holding the beads, but no longer worrying at them. She must have sensed me looking at her, or maybe caught my reflection in the window, because she turned and caught my gaze – at first a bit surprised, then a quick, polite smile, and then a return to the window.
She was no longer Saint Agnes representing a thousand years of oppression. She was a woman on a bus who seemed to be calling upon God sincerely.
I turned away too. After all, the Code hadn’t changed, even if everything else suddenly had. Because she was no longer Mother Theresa or Saint Agnes or a scornful bigot representing a thousand years of oppression. She was a woman on a bus who in retrospect seemed to be calling upon God sincerely. And if that were the case, God was close to her. Who was I to stick my snap judgments and baggage between the two of them? The fact is, she could have easily been putting in a good word for me and not hoping I’d spontaneously combust and keep combusting in the afterlife.
Maybe the sight of the two of us together, talking to God each in our own way, beads in hand, yarmulke on head, lips moving furiously, had caught the attention of our fellow commuters and even inspired them. Now I was feeling pretty good about my religious seatmate and the wonderful thing we’d done together. The bus pulled into Port Authority and I stood, trying to catch the eyes of my fellow travelers, to acknowledge silently but assuredly this tremendous experience we’d shared, this transformation from a ride to a rite, a commute to a community.
Of course, no one met my eye. This was New York. Plus, the Code strictly prohibits interaction with strangers, especially eye contact.
But I left the bus undaunted – even after Comb-Over stepped on my foot as he rushed to get to the escalator – with a smile on my face. Jewish tradition tells us we should consider the world as though it was created for each of us. Because each of us has a unique touch of godliness that gives the universe purpose.
But there’s another way to look at it. We each create the world for ourselves. Our perceptions, our attitudes, our thoughts produce the world around us every moment of our waking days. We see, hear, experience what we want, what we will. And in doing so, we affect all the other people busily creating their worlds.
That’s a big responsibility. I'm glad I was able to figure this out before the journey ended. Fortunately, there was traffic.