This is a love story, and it isn’t mine, but a taxi driver told it to me davka right after I told him that I love writing stories that taxi drivers tell me.
So I think I’m supposed to tell it to you.
He’s my age, more or less — a little stubble on his face, even less on his head.
We were on the way to Jerusalem, and he picked me up right on time and wore one of those tight body shirts — in bright smiley-face yellow, with a matching face mask.
“How’d you get through Corona?” he asked, after I told him I work in journalism and I love to write about people.
“It’s been tough,” I answered.
“It has,” he said. “I’m a man of the road, a man of the street — I hate being at home — I need to travel, to drive, to talk to people… To feel the wind through my hair.” He laughed and rubbed his bald head. “You know what I mean.”
“I do,” I said. “That’s part of why it’s been hard for me.”
“It must have been,” he said. “You had no one to write about.”
He fiddled with the radio.
“Do you have a boyfriend?” he asked.
“Yes, we live together.”
“That’s good. At least you had someone to talk to.”
“What about you?” I asked him. “Do you have a girlfriend?”
“No,” he said. And he let the answer hang in the air, long enough where I tried to think of something to say to break the silence…
Like, what *do* I say?
This is Israel, and everyone is a Jewish mother — even the men.
Am I supposed to offer to set him up with someone?
The hills streaked by in a soft green blur.
“I don’t have a GIRLFRIEND,” he said. “I have an amazing wife, really, she’s my queen, my eyes, my soul.”
“That’s wonderful,” I said “You sound so happy”
“We are — and we have four kids! Our oldest is 18… And I’m 37, so you can say we’ve had a busy life.”
“How’d you meet?”
“Oh… Oh, well THAT is a love story,” he said.
“Nu? Tell me!”
“Okay, okay… Yeah, you like stories. I’ll tell you. This is really a true love story,” he said again. And I could see his eyes crinkle in the rearview mirror, and I knew he was smiling.
I smiled back.
“Okay, I’m Bukhari…” he said. “I came to Israel in 1990 when I was just a kid from Uzbekistan. There’s a whole community of us where I live — have you ever tasted our food?”
“Yeah, I love it — I’ve been to a few places and it’s sooo good.”
“Of course. It’s Bukhari. It’s the best. Okay, anyway, I’m Bukhari. And the kids I hung out with were also Bukhari — our whole street was Bukhari. I went out with this girl, she was really nice. But she kept telling me that her best friend was in love with me — like, seriously in love with me. And even though she liked me a lot, she loved her friend even more and she hated seeing her friend so brokenhearted over me, so she broke up with me, and told me to go out with her friend. So I talked to her friend, and we really liked each other… We liked each other so much that we fell in love. We were kids, but we just knew. The thing is, her family was very old fashioned — very strict… She wasn’t allowed to date, she wasn’t allowed to go anywhere, so we kept it a secret. My parents were more modern, and they knew her and they liked her, so she would come over to my house after school… So we were together like this for two years… I got drafted into the army. Golani.” He sat up straighter and squared his shoulders when he said this. “I was in Golani, but I was home pretty much every weekend with my family, and I would see her when I could. But she was still in school. She was 17, finishing up, but still in school.”
He cleared his throat.
“So, one day she comes home from school and she calls me and she’s crying. ‘What’s wrong?’ I ask her. ‘I am getting married?’ she tells me. It’s like something out of a nightmare. Her parents found another Bukhari family in Austria — a rich family… They know her father’s cousin’s friend’s sister’s husband’s uncle.. that kind of thing. But they have a business, they have money, and they want my girlfriend to marry into their family, and her parents are so old-fashioned and backwards, and just SO PRIMITIVE that they agreed to this! Can you imagine? They don’t even know the family! It’s crazy! And the thing is,” he looked at me in the mirror and his eyes were flashing. “You probably don’t know this, but Bukhari girls would sometimes marry older Bukhari men in other countries — it was like a business arrangement between families, and sometimes the family would take her passport away, and she wouldn’t see her real family ever again, can you imagine? She couldn’t call them, she couldn’t see them… She’d have two, three kids… Her own mother would have no idea! And my girlfriend’s parents want her to marry into a family that they don’t know, that could take away her freedom in a second. They might never see her again! And I for sure would never see her again. It was the worst feeling.”
I could see his eyes in the mirror — even after all this time, they were dark and shining. He wiped the sweat from his brow.
“Sorry, it’s just so upsetting,” he told me. “I would never see her again if she left.”
“That’s terrible. What did you do?”
“Oho! She was crying, and she was sad, but she is also very brave and very stubborn… And she knows what she wants. She says to me, ‘I love you, I don’t want to marry another man, I don’t want to leave, I want to be with you, and there’s only one thing we can do.'”
“Run away?” I asked.
“No,” he answered. “If we ran away, we would lose our families — and even though her parents were making a terrible mistake, she loves her parents. And it would bring shame on our families, and it would hurt my dad and mom, too, and we couldn’t do that. We couldn’t run away. There was only one thing we could do, and it was her idea to do it.”
“‘You need to get me pregnant,’ she told me. ‘It’s the only way.’ Well, I was in shock. I was 19. Still in the army! In Golani! But I didn’t want to lose her, so I told her that I would do whatever she wanted, and I went to talk to my dad. I told my dad everything, and I’ll never forget it, my dad put his hands on my shoulders and looked into my eyes, and I thought he would tell me I’m crazy, you know? But instead, he said, ‘You are my son, and you are a man, and I will stand by you no matter what you decide.’ I’ll never forget it. So we decided. And we tried to get pregnant, and, what can I say, we succeeded very quickly. It was the time, and well, what can I say.” he winked. “She got pregnant and so we told my parents, and they were so happy, but they also were very smart, and they said we have to do this the right way, gently, and kindly for her parents.”
I sat there in the backseat, overwhelmed:
I can remember what it was like to be 17, to feel the heady rush of feelings, the stammer of my heart, and the fear my parents would catch me breaking curfew… I can remember it like I’m still there, wedged in the little desk in Homeroom, Cover Girl foundation on my cheeks, the wrong kind of bra, platform shoes… drawing hearts on the inside of my AP Euro binder.
And I also know what it’s like to be the mother of a 12-year-old girl who will be 17 in about five minutes. I can imagine what that will be like, as I watch her grow, watching her slipping past me as she gets ready to fly away… And I remember the words my mother cursed me with, “I wish on you a kid like you,” and my daughter BEST not be breaking curfew like her mother did back in the day, and running around with some guy I don’t know… Although I can remember what it was like to be 17.
And I thought about how my parents were protective, but they did let me make my own choices — even ones they wouldn’t make, even ones they didn’t like — and never in a million years did I imagine they would ever marry me off to someone I didn’t know, and how I could never imagine doing that to my daughter, how ultimately, I always had agency, and despite my angst and eyerolling, I never felt truly trapped even when there was a curfew and my dad wrote down the license plate number of every person I ever went out with.
I let all this wash over me.
She is MY age. Which means we were roughly the same age when this happened and sharing the same world at the same time… Ricky Martin on MTV, Backstreet Boys on the radio, boot cut jeans, and baby-T’s… But while I was busy packing my boxes for university, moving into a dorm, getting ready to live on my own — with no curfew! — picking my classes and deciding who I’d go out with and where I’d go and what I’d do, this young woman was trying to escape marriage to a stranger by getting pregnant.
What would I have done if I’d been in her place?
“So, my dad and my mom and my aunt and my uncle and my other uncle and my other aunt went to visit her parents. They brought flowers, they brought a plate of fruit — fresh strawberries. They brought a giant teddy bear with a heart for her little sister, they came dressed in their best, and her parents served them tea in the living room.”
“Were you there?”
“I was hiding outside the window. I heard everything, but they didn’t see me.”
“So my dad opened the conversation. He said ‘You have a wonderful daughter. She’s very kind and beautiful and smart, and we would like her to marry our son.’ ‘What are you talking about?’ her father said. ‘She’s already getting married!’ ‘We know,’ my dad said. ‘But do you know him? No, you don’t know him. You don’t know his family. You don’t know if they will be good to her, or if they will take away her freedom. You may never see your daughter again!’ my dad said. ‘How can you marry your daughter off to someone you don’t know? Just because he has money? Don’t worry — my son will provide for your daughter! He is in Golani! He’s strong! He’s smart! He is a good boy, and he will go to study, and he will take care of her!'”
“What did her father say?” I asked.
“Oho! He started yelling like a crazy person. ‘Get out of my house! How dare you tell me what’s good for my daughter! Who are you? You’re just the neighbors, I don’t know you! Get out! Get out! Get out of my house!'”
“And then?” I asked.
“My dad got up, and my mom got up, and my aunt got up, and my uncle got up, and my other uncle got up… And they walked out the door. But my other aunt stayed. ‘What do you want?’ her father asked my other aunt. ‘You should know,’ my other aunt said, ‘you should know… that the relationship between your daughter and my nephew has gone past the point of no return.’ There was nothing but silence. I’ll never forget it. Only silence. And then, suddenly, her father said in a very low voice, ‘What do you mean?’ I could hear my aunt take a deep breath. ‘Your daughter is already three months pregnant with his child.'”
“Yeah, wow. So her mother fainted. She passed out on the floor. BOOM. Her father started yelling, ‘Everyone, come back right now! Come back inside!’ So my other uncle and my uncle, and my aunt, and my mom, and my dad all came back inside. Her mother woke up and asked what happened. ‘Your daughter is pregnant!’ her father yelled. She fainted again. When she woke up, she said, ‘Well, she’s your daughter, too.’ They were both so angry, and so my mom spoke. ‘Don’t you do dare do anything to your daughter,’ my mom said. “Do not punish her, because inside her body is my first grandchild, and if you so much as harm a hair on her head, I will kill you.’ My mom is small but very very strong, and people take her seriously. Just like my wife.'”
“So then what happened?”
“We got married three weeks later. Chik chak,” he laughed. “The rabbi was a friend of her dad’s. Three weeks. And we had 600 people there to celebrate. She was the most beautiful bride. I’ll never forget what she looked like standing under the wedding canopy, in her long white dress, like an angel. She is my angel.”
“So, did you ever fix things with her family?”
The taxi driver winked at me in the rearview mirror.
“So, my dad wanted to buy us an apartment to help us get started, and I said no.”
“I wanted to live with her family.
“My dad asked the same question. He said, ‘What? Are you crazy?’ And I told him, ‘No, Dad, I’m not crazy. I love my wife, and I need to make things right with her father and her mother, and the only way I can do that is if they get to know me, and see I’m a good guy, that I’m honest, that I love her, that I will be there.'”
“That’s really smart.”
“Look. My wife was pregnant — I knew by then she was going to have a baby girl. I was going to have a daughter. So, I was thinking like a father. I was thinking like HER father.”
“We got married, and instead of going to a hotel for the night, I went home with her. She went to sleep, and I sat in the living room with her father. We sat and drank tea and we sat and drank tea and we sat and drank tea and we talked and talked and talked, and by morning, he shook my hand. A few weeks later, He hugged me and told me that everything came from Above, from HaShem. Now, he calls me his son. Whenever he needs anything, I’m there for him. Whenever he calls, I answer, ‘Don’t worry, Yitzik, I’m already on the way.’ In fact, after I drop you, I’ll go by the shuk and get him some fresh strawberries. They’re his favorite.”
I sat there dazzled and amazed, “This is a beautiful story,” I said.
“It is. And it’s all because of my incredible wife. She is brave and strong, just like my mom, and now, like my daughter, too — like both my daughters. My littlest one is four, and she is fierce! I come from a family of strong women, what can I say?”
The phone rang.
His eyes lit up, and he answered and even with the mask on I could hear he was smiling as he spoke:
“Shalom, Yitzik!….. Yes, yes… Everything’s fine, everything’s fine…. Don’t worry, Yitzik… Don’t worry… I’m already on the way.”
And he smiled the rest of our way to Jerusalem.