A few weeks ago my phone pinged with a text from my 25-year-old son Nachum, newly married and living in Jerusalem: “Dad, my scooter was stolen!”
HaMakom yemale lekha khesroncha, I texted back. May God replenish your loss. This is the Talmud’s Hallmark-like greeting for occasions of material mishaps.
My son is a new avreich, a young married man studying Talmud in the Mir. An electric scooter is a fantastic way to navigate the trafficked streets, the hills, and the clogged arteries of the holy city. “You can get anywhere in a flash,” he told me when he bought it a few months ago.
I’d thought of young Frenchmen biking their way home with a baguette and a bottle of wine for long lunches and romantic afternoons.
“How much does such a scooter cost?” I asked, after hearing it had been stolen.
“About $1,400,” he said, “give or take.”
Then I thought, why wait for God to make good? I tapped back on the phone. “I just put $300 into the ‘buy a new scooter for Nachum fund.’”
“Thanks, Dad, I feel better already.”
A week later, I took a trip to Israel and went scooter shopping with him. In the midday summer heat, we haggled in Hebrew over two models at a bike store in Jerusalem near the Davidka stop on the light rail.
I had looked forward to this moment—a replay of earlier memories: buying Nachum his first tricycle, then bicycle; his first baseball bat and mitt; l’havdil, his first siddur, Gemara, lulav and etrog, and a whole lot of other firsts. This was a first, too. I was only there to keep him company, not buy the scooter for him. Or at least that is what I thought I was there for.
The shop was like any other you might find in North America, but a little more, shall we say, rustic? Here, an electric bike with its guts open on the unswept floor, midsurgery. There, another, hung on a hoist waiting for a back wheel. The grease monkeys doubled as salesmen and wore big black yarmulkes and peyos and spoke rapid-fire Hebrew into their phones—“the X2A model is 3,000 shekel, the other one is 5,000,” or “you have to put the wires in crosswise against the lithium [battery].” The store kept filling with anxious yeshiva young men and boys alternately in silence or nattering on in clipped small talk. In the meantime, wads of cash were being exchanged. Sales, repairs, and customer service were all happening in the same time dimension.
For my son it boiled down to three models. (These were not the scooters of the boyhoods of yesteryear.) One set of “wheels” was a heavy-duty, high-voltage affair called Next that weighed 70-plus pounds and zipped past 60 mph on the downhill. The second was a smaller and slower version that weighed a little less. The third was smaller still and cheaper. We looked at each carefully. The lowest model was too slight and would not do. The middling model was a bit dowdy, but the higher end piece had nifty blinker lights and a better sounding horn. “Get the better version,” I intoned. “Ema and I will cover the difference in price.” Nachum thanked me, paid for the scooter and went off into the labyrinth of alleyways and streets.
To my mind, I had come to “help”—but a new thought had begun to sneak up on me in the store and was getting progressively louder as I hopped a light rail home. Had I come, unconsciously, to buy one for myself?
It was dangerous: A man in his late 50s, past time for a certain kind of hijinks—or maybe just ready to begin them. Either way, yes, indeed, I wanted one for myself.
Later that evening, Nachum buzzed by our apartment. I looked admiringly, even covetously at his fine new machine bedecked with side signal lights, and him with a shiny new helmet.
He noticed the way I was looking at the machine. “Dad, you’re not thinking of getting one for yourself, are you?”
“No, I wasn’t thinking about it,” I assured him. “I had already decided I would get one.”
Nachum sat me down and placed a hand of concern on my shoulder. “Dad, I’m worried for your safety. I don’t want anything to happen to you …”
“But Nachum,” I quickly said. “Isn’t this the pot calling the kettle black?”
“Yes, Dad, but I’m … you know … younger.”
“You’re right. I’m concerned, too. I’m vulnerable,” I said. “I’m going to give it a day or so, but I think I’m going to get it.”
The next day I walked toward the shop, my legs were unsteady as though they had too much to drink. Was I afraid or excited? I didn’t know which. Would these young peyos-wearing grease monkeys laugh at me? Who’s this old guy on a scooter? What exactly was I doing?
Truth is, I didn’t know, but I would only find out after I bought it. I pointed to a model that looked the same as Nachum’s.
“You were in here the other day with your son,” said the salesman. “You want the same as him?”
“Yes,” I nodded.
“Yosef Chaim,” he called to one of his coworkers with the most amazingly curled peyos I had ever seen. “Set up the scooter for this man, please.”
I saw that it would take a while. It’s not ready from the box. Wires have to be attached, gears have to be set, lights affixed. Was I insane? Well, I said to myself, God watches over fools.
I was 8 years old when my father bought me a secondhand bicycle. It was an old clunky Schwinn, heavy, with thick tires. It had a vintage headlight that never worked well, but I was happy to have something to call mine and I began riding it all over the neighborhood.
We lived in a section of Queens where the streets would flood after downpours and that day—in early summer—there had been a deluge. I remember riding it through the artificial lakes that were created by the poor drainage. Round and round I would go through the muddy, darkened waters, spoke wheels churning sheets of wet. I imagined myself a soldier in Vietnam fighting bravely, splashing through the rice paddies in a fine, steamy sunshine rain. I had a marvelous time.
After several hours I returned home to find my mother on the ground floor of our apartment building. “Where were you?” she asked, while looking at me wet and muddy. My mother slapped me across the face, a forceful, stinging slap that I can still feel.
Apparently, my wandering around for hours without her knowledge was an endangerment of both me and her and a violation of the contract she held with life: Hold hands, stay together and never let go. Don’t ever do anything dangerous! I think she, like many people of her generation—a child of 4 when the bombs started to fall on London, evacuated alone to the countryside during the Blitz—made a promise to herself: Don’t do risky things, especially things that could cause a rupture in self or with others. Ever.
At any point in life when I called her, the conversation would go like this: “Hi Ma, I’m in Paris [or Jerusalem, or whatever] and I wanted to say hello.” She would say, “I’m so happy to hear from you—is it safe?” By her lights, there was danger everywhere. One should be at home or at work. Of all the girls you should never court, danger was the darling to avoid at all costs.
It wasn’t just about physical danger; the same applied in spiritual matters and ideology, too. If any of her children were to stray from the Torah, to succumb to the ways of the “gentile” street or even the irreligious, such a thing would not only devastate her. It would be both unethical and also unsafe.
The ribbono shel oilam cannot be expected to protect us if we don’t follow in His ways. Such was her intimation, conveyed in silence but with a look that made you sad as though you were about to trample a flower. There was conviction in her—but because it was a principle of belief asserted without human vulnerability or life-giving doubt, a mental fuzz set in between us and a potential dialogue between us on this was lost—until perhaps now.
This great manchild’s machine was now ready to mount. Carefully, I squeezed the throttle and I started to go bump-bump on the rocky Geula pavement. It reminded me of my first heady driving and motorcycle trips decades ago. I was hyperalert. Behemothlike buses rule the tiny alleys of these neighborhoods. Yet teeming multitudes on foot and bicycle dare to take on these Gullivers. They dart in between and all around. I, too, was able to squeeze in between buses, pedestrians, mothers with strollers, between old and young, pavement and curb.
At such moments I held my breath: What if the bus driver doesn’t see me and I get squashed, Heaven forbid? Somehow, I made it home. We tempt fate but the wish to live is strong.
Now comes the hard part. I folded the scooter and carried all 70 pounds of it up 12 flights to our apartment. I was completely out of breath. Why had I done this? I dragged the contraption and folded it into a nook in the kitchen. I took off my helmet and, still winded, called my son.
“Does anyone in your yeshiva want to buy this projectile secondhand?”
“You don’t like it, Dad?”
“Nah, it’s great, but it was a strain to carry and scary to drive.”
“Dad, whenever you’re ready, I’ll have someone take it off your hands.”
“Good. You can post it right away. I’ve had my fill. Maybe I proved my point.”
But then as the afternoon turned to evening, even as the contraption sat folded and inert in the kitchen, it called to me. At first, gently; then by 8 p.m. it summoned me. I had to bring a package to my cousin in Katamon. Now, after evening prayers, would be a perfect time to take my scooter for another spin across Jerusalem.
I mentally mapped out the trip. I would hew to the light rail tracks to swing into the city center, and graze the edge of the holy city by Damascus Gate. The pavement is cobblestone bumpy and fast-moving traffic crisscrosses the light rail tracks at several points, but there was no way to get lost, so it was a good option.
A fragrant breeze blows at 9 in the evening in Jerusalem after the heat of the day. The city with its breathlessly good-looking people are out in force. A tram comes at intervals of every two minutes, yet the crowd is replenished each time. For 6 shekels you are guaranteed to (mentally) fall in love, maybe even marry and set up house with someone before the next stop. Such is the beauty of the people of this city. Flaubert would have surely traded the Paris Metro for the Jerusalem light rail.
I turned left on King George and battled with a bus for point position. In a blink of an eye I was in Rechavia, an old prosperous Jerusalem neighborhood and then on to Katamon to deliver the parcel. I lingered in a yeshiva there to study. It was now close to 11 and I geared up for the ride home. I made a wrong turn and wound up on the wrong side of town. Finally, I found my way back via Romema and Yirmiyahu Street. But the traffic on this boulevard had come to a total halt. I scooted on sidewalks and in between cars for a half mile to find out the cause: It was a massive demonstration—against a new light rail project that is nearly finished.
A new light rail is being built along a major artery that will connect the center of the city with several other neighborhoods. Who’s unhappy about that?
Well, a section of the Eida Hacharedis, that’s who. Who is the Eida Hacharedis? I guess you can consider them the 13th tribe of Israel. They are a homegrown communal group in opposition to the Jewish state even as they live and flourish here. Dating back 100 years and more, they shun Zionists and Zionism and live a separate life within the state and within Jerusalem itself. Over the years they have become politically powerful—powerful enough to block traffic.
Apparently, only a small portion of this group opposes the light rail. They do so on the grounds that “outside influences” (women in revealing clothing) will “invade” their way of life. The tram is at street level and brings the “street” into their street. They have a point. An experience on the glam-tram can make you light-headed enough to (heaven forbid!) turn away from our Creator. Fortunately, the God of Israel may have given us other remedies for these temptations other than to block traffic, harass workers, and destroy equipment.
While I navigated the dense sidewalks and the one-way streets, policemen issued threats by loudspeaker and began to use water to disperse the protesters; arrests were made, barricades were being set up on one street, broken down on another. Young boys, in a mix of Yiddish and Hebrew, taunted the police and ran away laughing. Others milled about, eating pizza and falafel. I dodged men going off to study and pray.
Exhilarated, I reached home after midnight having lived a hot restless summer night in Jerusalem. My mother would not have approved of me or the protesters. M’valge nisht arum—We both should have been studying Torah. She did not appreciate the restlessness in men. I do.
The next day I had an appointment in Ramot, a ritzy neighborhood north and west of Jerusalem’s center. To get there, one must travel Golda Meir Boulevard. It is five or six lanes wide and down a vast hill. Traffic moves at 60 mph and more. I was quite nervous as I ambled out of Anatevka (the “villages” of Ramat Eshkol and Sanhedria) and entered into the big-world flow of traffic. Initially, I was shy to take up a whole lane. But the downhill tailwind brought me up to speed and I got more assertive. The scooter shook at highway sprint but somehow was also steady. “Look Ma, no hands.” A few intersections later and I was in the sleepy beautiful lanes of Ramot.
When I got there, my son called. “You made it to Ramot, Dad?”
“Thank God, yes,” I told him, and then shared with him a few tips on how to stay safe.
The return trip was uphill and far less nerve-wracking, but still, buses and impatient drivers cut me off and practically grazed me and the other cyclists and scooters on the road. I yearned for the safety of home. Just another little bit and I would be eating falafel in our kitchen. And I would have pulled a fast one on fate—and my mother.
My beautiful mother was no Ernest Shackelton, no John Glenn, nor even Dora the Explorer. She was made by the war to live, long before knowing how. Understandably, she became a homebody and preferred her men to be tent-dwellers as well—in order to study the word of God, to obey Him, to be taught His intimate names in times of distress and danger. I am sure as Dead Sea salt, however, that for me, to have done only that, and to have not “manufactured” my own perils and risky business, would have been not only dangerous but fatal.
Alter Yisrael Shimon Feuerman, a psychotherapist in New Jersey, is director of The New Center for Advanced Psychotherapy Studies. He is also author of the Yiddish novel Yankel and Leah.