In the hustle and bustle of Manhattan, a cab driver is a person who takes his passengers from one spot to another. Conversation might—but usually does not—reach beyond pleasantries: hello, goodbye, thank you. But in Jerusalem, a city whose je ne sais quoi cultivates the most unexpected of friendships, the journey is sometimes more important than the destination.
One day in Jerusalem, just over four years ago, I met Tzion, a 60-something Iraqi Jewish cab driver. There was no particular reason to suspect we might ever see each other again, and certainly no reason to guess we would become friends. We differ with regard to age, gender, and political outlook, and I was staying in Jerusalem for only 10 months. But in the years since we first met, he and I have developed a bond that far transcends that which is typically experienced between customer and driver. The kind of bond that only Jerusalem can foster.
When I first hopped into his cab in downtown Jerusalem in the fall of 2012, Tzion said he would charge me 30 shekels to go to Nishmat, a seminary whose book-lined walls would form my home base for the academic year that I would spend in Israel. But on our way there, I decided to make a few stops. We went to Derech Beit Lechem, so I could pick up produce from Shimmy, the fruit vendor; we parked outside a pharmacy so I could buy some allergy medicine; we went to a supermarket, so I could get groceries for the week. Very quickly, what should have been a roughly 15-minute ride morphed in an hour-long adventure.
As Tzion’s cab made its way into Nishmat’s parking lot, I meekly asked: “So, how much do I owe you?”
“Thirty shek, like we agreed,” he replied.
I protested. I begged for a higher price—which he was undoubtedly owed—but he declined, extolling the virtue of abiding by a deal.
At that point, I’d been in Israel for a few weeks, which had felt like a lifetime. Countless cab drivers, who could tell that I was not a local from my sparse vocabulary and comedic attempts at an Israeli accent, had taken advantage of me, charging exorbitant fees to drive me around in circles.
I’d never asked a man for his phone number before, but my status as a temporary Jerusalemite emboldened me. Over the course of the year that followed, I called Tzion every time I needed a cab.
Halfway through my gap year, I met a boy whose nightly phone calls kept me up until the sound of a nearby mosque’s muezzin rang out, calling the neighborhood’s Muslims to morning prayer and obtrusively reminding me that the time to go to sleep had long passed.
I was 18, infatuated, and addicted to the Jersey Boys cast album because it was his favorite. He was a year older, a freshman in college who happened to be in Israel over his winter break.
During the week that he spent in Israel, I introduced him to Tzion, who, by that point had become a near-daily presence in my life. Never capable of saying anything negative about anyone, Tzion merely remarked to me in a hushed whisper: “He wears red pants.” I wasn’t destined, he said, for a boy who wore red pants. There was a lot in that comment: a characterization of the clashing elements of our personalities; our diverging outlooks on issues big and small; or maybe it was all just a reflection of Tzion’s dated ideas about what constituted masculinity—but whatever he really meant, Tzion let me get there on my own, merely orienting my steering wheel in the right direction. He was here and I was there, and within a few months, it was over before it began.
Almost two years later, during my sophomore year at Barnard, Tzion met another boy who had crawled into my heart—my first real relationship. He was going to Israel for a few days without me. “You must meet Tzion!” I’d insisted. “I’ll have him pick you up from the airport.”
It wasn’t just that I wanted to give Tzion the business; it felt unfathomable that Tzion wouldn’t have a chance to get to know, and form an opinion on, this person who had become a key figure in my life. Before becoming a cab driver, Tzion worked as a private investigator and within minutes of my introducing him to anyone new, it was always immediately clear that he was an incredibly precise judge of character. That I was so desperate for Tzion’s read on this boyfriend should have been a flashing neon sign that I was anything but confident in my own.
I texted Tzion to get the scoop after they met. Was he talkative? Had the person to whom I’d ostensibly meant the world taken an interest in Tzion because he meant the world to me?
Tzion would only describe him as being tired from the flight, which I interpreted as a no—no, he had not taken the time to get to know Tzion, either not caring about or not understanding our relationship. But eternally protective of me, Tzion did offer one real remark: “There was a girl with him.” He gave no commentary, presented no value judgment, just told me a fact.
I assured Tzion that all was well. I had arranged for the girl in question to be in his cab; she was a friend, and nothing untoward was going on. Of all of the issues present in our relationship, unfaithfulness had never been a problem, but I was touched and heartened to realize that even when I was so many miles away, Tzion’s first impulse was to make sure I was protected.
During the year I’d spent in Jerusalem, Tzion had taken me to my grandparents each week so that I could sit and interview my grandfather about his experiences during WWII. Zayde served as a chaplain in the British army during liberation, and met my grandmother, a survivor, in the displaced-persons camp that the British set up in Bergen-Belsen. He had a quiet brilliance and always seemed to be holding back his own stories in recognition that it was more important for me to hear about my grandmother’s experiences. Until those weekly afternoons that I spent with him in their home in Rechavia, I knew very little about his involvement with the British army or his work with survivors in the DP camps.
After a few weeks, I introduced Tzion to my grandparents and soon thereafter, he was taking them in his cab each Friday to my aunt’s apartment, where they spent every Shabbat. A true yekke, always precise and punctilious, my grandfather would call Tzion every Friday morning, without fail, to confirm the time that they wanted to be picked up. Tzion continued to drive them long after I had concluded my program at Nishmat, packed my bags, and returned to New York.
One week my grandfather didn’t call, so Tzion called their landline. Over and over again he dialed their number, to no avail. Finally, he called my aunt to find out if the plan was still for him to pick them up and take them to her house.
She broke the news to him over the phone, just an hour after my father had broken it to me.
“I was so sorry to hear about your grandfather’s death,” he texted me. “I loved him.”
He was the first person to send me a note of condolence, and because most of my friends in New York had never met my grandfather, it was one of the most meaningful ones that I received.
My grandfather was buried on a Friday morning mere hours after his death, and so none of my immediate family made it to the funeral. A cousin FaceTimed us so that we could see what was going on and feel like we were participating. And there, in a small, smudged, blurry corner on the left side of the screen, standing with the rest of the men, was Tzion.
My siblings and I flew to Israel for the shiva. When it was time to go back to the airport, we were too many people with too many bags to fit into Tzion’s cab so he arranged for one of his friends who drove a van to take us. As we loaded our bags into his van, a cab drove up the street. He couldn’t take us to the airport, but Tzion had come to give me a hug goodbye.
It was not the last time Tzion would see my grandfather. “He came to me in a dream!” he said to me over a coffee in Baka one sunny afternoon this January. I’d asked Tzion to meet me to explain a bizarre message he’d sent me months earlier.
In all the years since his own parents had died, Tzion has never dreamed about them, nor about any of the friends he’s lost. So when, one morning, he awoke from an inexplicable dream about my grandfather, he took it seriously, believing a higher power was sending him a message. “In all the years I worked with him,” Tzion said, “I never heard him yell.” But in his dream, my grandfather was screaming at Tzion, “Don’t go, don’t go!”
That morning, Tzion was scheduled for an EKG. The results showed a serious heart problem that his doctors felt warranted immediate surgery. They repeated the exam several times, and though Tzion felt fine, they continued to get the same result and instructed him to come with them in an ambulance to the hospital. All Tzion could think about was my grandfather screaming at him not to go. Over their loudest and most impassioned objections, Tzion made clear he wasn’t going to the hospital. Ignoring their entreaties and against their advice, he left.
A few days later, Tzion went for a follow-up EKG to make sure everything was OK. The exam showed his heart had a slight quirk, but was fine, that he didn’t need any surgery, that, in fact, surgery would have been extremely high-risk and potentially life-threatening. When I told a friend this story, I was in awe of the outcome—that a dream had quite possibly saved Tzion’s very real life. She made me realize my true awe was over Tzion, a man who for some reason decided to listen to the ethereal, otherworldly messaging of one of his customers. That our relationship had transcended the usual driver-driven dynamic was entirely to his credit; it became clear to me that he related to every person he met not through the transactional lens with which so many of us wander through life, but as unique individuals each placed on this planet for a different reason.
On that same sunny afternoon in Baka, I’d asked Tzion if he believed in God. “Yes,” he said. “He is my friend.”
We talked about loss and tragedy and faith and doubt. Tzion explained that he’d grown up religious, became more secular during his time in the army, and had found his way back to religion as an adult. When I lost a close friend a year earlier, Tzion began to learn Torah in her memory, telling me that in the Iraqi community, the best way to honor a person’s memory was to grapple with Jewish texts with that person in mind. Her untimely death had shaken my faith, but hearing Tzion talk about his “friend” God, and about the evolution of his own beliefs, reminded me that faith is not a constant.
When I asked him how he could reconcile unfathomable loss with a belief in a compassionate, loving God, he answered with a long-winded parable that brought what seemed like infinite unshed tears to my eyes.
He told me a story of a man sent to jail for a period of 20 years. The man was married and had kids, but in his second year in prison, he was somehow tricked into forgetting he had a wife and children and bamboozled into believing that he was, in fact, free; that there was no life besides the prison. He was permitted to marry in jail, and began a new life with his new wife and kids. “So, now, 20 years has passed. Would you release the man?” Tzion had asked me. Even understanding that freedom, in this particular parable, would cause the man and both his families a great deal of pain, I instinctively answered with one word: “Yes.” He didn’t say anything, just looked at me with a soft, crooked smile, seemingly knowing that if he had said aloud that jail is merely a metaphor for the physical life we experience on this Earth, I would have recoiled, unable to accept the comparison. And, yet, in his silence, I found salvation.
We’re different, Tzion and I. There’s much that separates us, that relegates our friendship to the sphere of the unexpected. We have what is still, on some level, a business relationship, and we are unaware of the quotidian details of each other’s day-to-day lives. I don’t know what street he lives on in Baka, he has no idea that I’m obsessed with Percy Shelley, but we share and discuss the things that matter.
When I first met Tzion, I’d come to Jerusalem for a gap year before college, seeking answers to my religious questions from the rabbis and teachers at my seminary, from the pages of familiar texts. I’d come with the realization that I’d learn which friends from high school were circumstantial, and which were destined to be a part of my life forever. I’d come with preconceived notions, with expectations of whom I would be learning from and what I would be learning.
These ideas were quickly dispelled as I began to realize that in Jerusalem, enlightenment comes from the most unexpected of places; that an 18-year-old Ashkenazic girl from the Upper East Side of Manhattan might have much in common with, much to say to, and much to learn from a 60-something Iraqi cab driver. In the years I’ve known him, Tzion has never failed to take me where I needed to go. But what’s been so much more important, so much more heartening to realize, has been how far he’s taken me on the journey of understanding what it means to be a good friend, a good person, a good Jew.
“I love you, Princess,” he always says when we part.
“Until next time, Tzion,” I always reply, “Lehitra’ot to Tzion, the man, and Tzion, the land.”
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