Taxi Stories: My Adorable, Infuriating Israel

Anyone who has visited New York City, and of course those of us who live here, has a story about New York cabbies.

Most of the time, our cabbies speak a dialect of English that is largely unintelligible. There was a time when the New York City cab population was flooded with Israelis, but nowadays, a large number of the drivers hail from what many would call “one of the Stans:” Uzbekistan, Tadzjikistan, Afghanistan… you get the point. Every once is a while you might encounter a cab driver who actually speaks English and knows his/her way around New York, which in general is a good thing. But then you run the risk of having a driver who insists on talking to you non-stop, from pick-up to drop-off, as you’re trying to grab a minute or two of peace and quiet while you lurch from Point A to Point B. It kind of makes you miss the unintelligible English.

In the spirit of the article that I wrote a few weeks ago titled “Learning to Love the Real Israel,” I am obliged to admit that I have always had a special place in my heart for Israeli taxi drivers. They have most of the same qualities as New York cabbies, but then there is a special “Israeli value added” to their mishegas that makes them simultaneously infuriating and endearing.

On the infuriating side, it can be challenging to get Israeli cab drivers to use their meters. They’ll try to bargain a price with you when you start out, and if you don’t know where you’re going, that is rarely a good thing for the customer, for obvious reasons. But ironically, the main reason why they’re so reluctant to use their meters is because when they do, they have to pay tax on that income, as opposed to keeping the ride “off the books,” as it were. I’m not passing judgment here – many of us do similar things for larger amounts of money – but when the customer loses money in the process, well, as they might say in Israel, “Zeh lo b’seder…” That’s not so OK. So here’s a helpful tip to the inexperienced traveler to Israel; when you get in a cab, simply say “Tishtamesh ba’moneh, b’vakashah…” “Please use the meter.” They may still give you an argument, but you’ll win eventually if you stand your ground, and probably save money in the process.

But on the endearing side, even when they’re occasionally trying to rip you off, they do so in such charming ways…

I’ve lived in Jerusalem for a year at a time twice in my life, in addition to the constant visits, and I know the city very well. When you know where you’re going, it’s harder for a cabbie to take advantage of you, right? And especially if you speak Hebrew fluently, which I do. Mostly right. But they’ll still give it the old college try…

Just a few weeks ago, I was taking a cab from the Knesset to the German Colony, which is not at all that long of a trip. So I get in, and the driver drives less than a kilometer before declaring that he needs to put water in the engine (every hazard light is blazing red on the dashboard, so who knows if he does or doesn’t). So he stops the car, with the meter running, runs out, adds the water, and runs back in. OK, it only added a shekel or two to the ride, no big deal. But then he turns off the route that I know to be correct, onto a side street that led to another side street and another turn onto another side street, and now I know for sure that I’m being played.

At this point in my life, I’m more amused by these experiences that angered, because each one adds to my precious suitcase full of Israeli cab stories. So I say to the driver, kind of nonchalantly, in Hebrew, of course, “You know, adoni hanahag (Mr. Driver, sir), I’ve done this trip many times, and I’ve never, ever, seen anyone take this route to get where I want to go.”

I might as well have declared war, or fired a missile into his already-overheated engine. He pulls the car over to the curb, turns off the engine (and, of course, the meter), turns around, and with a look of hurt and anguish on his face, says (in Hebrew, of course), something to the effect of “Are you accusing me – me – of trying to rip you off? I am so personally insulted, I’m literally sick to my stomach with aggravation. Do you know that I’m a fifth generation Jerusalemite, who knows these streets like I know the faces of my own children, and who would never take advantage of a person like yourself. Didn’t you see there was traffic at that intersection? I turned here to avoid that traffic, ran into a little bit of traffic after that so I made another turn… all to get you where you want to go. How can you possibly insult me that way?” Following which, he very ceremoniously turned the car back on, made another few turns, and dropped me off at my destination- taking a few shekels off the final price to allow for my “pain and suffering.” I am obliged to admit that I got out of the cab having thoroughly enjoyed myself, against all odds…

Just a few days later, I took a cab from Jerusalem to Rehovot, where my sister lives and my parents are buried, to spend a quick day with family before returning to the States. This driver was quite the opposite of the other – pleasant, no nonsense… he realized that I knew the way better than he did, so he was more than happy to be directed. But… I got the “what are you doing in Israel?” question. Yes, you guessed it. What followed was about forty minutes of “What’s a Conservative rabbi? Are you like the “Reformim?” What, you don’t believe that the Torah was given word for word on Mount Sinai, he said, with the picture of the Baba Sali hanging from his rearview mirror.

Eventually, we were able to reach a consensus that we are all children of the same God, and the world was a peaceful place again. I was in a rush to reach my sister’s house, and was grateful for the minute or two of peace before I did. But then I made the fateful mistake of mentioning that my parents were buried in the cemetery that we were driving by, and he insisted on driving me to their graves, because “You have to pay your parents the proper respect before you do anything else! I’ll turn the meter off, it won’t cost you anything, here, I have the text of the memorial prayers right here!!” Somehow or other, I managed to convey to this driver that I did indeed intend to go the graves with my sister the following morning (which was completely true), and he took me to my sister. So much for the two minutes of peace!

I have no rational explanation for why strange things keep happening to me in cabs in Israel, but I like to think that these experiences are given to me as a kind of gift, to sear the quirky but enduring specialness of Israel deep into my soul. If that is indeed the case, they’ve succeeded. I love driving in Israel and I often rent a car, but when I don’t, I know that one or two good cab rides will get my Zionist juices flowing.

Such a crazy country… I absolutely love it.

Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is the spiritual leader of the Forest Hills Jewish Center in Queens.

About the Author
Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is the Rabbi Emeritus of the Forest Hills Jewish Center in Queens.