When I first read Katha Pollitt’s essay “Learning To Drive” in The New Yorker in 2002, it seemed that Pollitt was my soul sister. She and I shared a shameful secret: Both of us struggled long and hard to learn what most teenagers pick up as second nature; we sweated to become drivers.
My driving troubles weren’t entirely of my own making. I began with a cultural handicap: My immigrant parents, Holocaust survivors, didn’t drive; we never owned a car, and I grew up in Manhattan, where public transportation is so wonderful and parking spaces so scarce that a car is actually a liability.
Nonetheless, in twelfth grade I signed up for drivers ed; I wanted to be like everybody else. But when my turn came, and my foot pressed the accelerator and I felt the car move, I panicked.
In the new film adaptation of Pollitt’s story, in theaters now, Patricia Clarkson plays Wendy—the fictional version of Pollitt—and Ben Kingsley plays Darwan, her soft-spoken Sikh driving instructor. My first driving instructor was a sadist by the name of Mr. Burroughs. One day, after I’d made more mistakes than he could tolerate, he told everyone in our car that I was “neurologically impaired.”
I don’t know how he made his diagnosis—I don’t think he was a doctor moonlighting as a driving teacher, but it stuck. I stayed away from driving for years.
Then I moved to Israel, got married, and (through my husband) became co-owner of a white Subaru DL with a stick shift. I signed up for lessons again. Instead of a gentle Darwan-type, my teacher was Shuki, a swarthy, short-tempered, chain-smoking Israeli with a serious patience deficit.
Even at 27, I was still anxious and insecure, and the added challenge of selecting and changing gears made everything worse. One day, Shuki took me out to Jaffa Road, where the traffic so thick that the cars around were almost touching. I froze in fear. Then Shuki yelled something at me in Hebrew and grabbed the steering wheel. After that I quit; I was pregnant and nauseated and the lessons were too stressful for me.
Ten more years passed. My rapidly growing family left Jerusalem for a village in the Judean Hills where public transportation was spotty. For the first time, I needed a car, so when my father died and left me some money, I decided to go back to driving lessons, this time with a woman instructor—I thought a woman would be kinder and more patient—and on an automatic car.
I chose Tikva from the phone book; I liked the fact that her name meant hope. She was a tough, chain-smoking broad (I don’t know why so many of my driving teachers were chain smokers) without much patience. Her life’s treasure was her car—a navy blue Honda Civic that she guarded zealously. I was a terrible student, and Tikva frequently grabbed the steering wheel away, but in time I improved. Meanwhile, our sessions dragged on and on. I’d gone way over Israel’s legally mandated requirement of 28 lessons with a professional instructor, but Tikva never said anything about a road test. In fact, she didn’t say very much at all. Mostly she frowned. In Israel, the driving instructor is the one who determines when the student is ready to take the road test, so I needed her approval. After two years of paying for lessons with no end in sight, I began to wonder whether I was the one being taken for a ride.
Around that time, a neighbor told me about Itchko, yet another hardboiled Israeli who made his living teaching others to drive. Itchko was a marvel, my neighbor said. Not only had he successfully taught her, he’d taught all of the members of her extended family, and they’d all passed their road tests with flying colors. I was sold.
If Tikva had been glum and silent, Itchko was wrenching—full of criticism and chronically unable to compliment. When I messed up a U-turn in a crowded intersection, he screamed so fiercely that I felt like he’d beaten up my soul. After that I replaced him with another woman teacher, but Mira proved strange and mercurial, angering easily for reasons I couldn’t understand.
By this time, four years had passed, and the money I’d spent on lessons could have bought me a very nice car. I joked about earning my place in the Guinness Book of World Records but I was embarrassed; I felt defective, “neurologically impaired,” and I was weary. I hated driving lessons. They were stressful, boring, and pointless but, with the buses to my town coming late or not at all and taxis scarce and costly, I still needed to learn to drive.
On the bus from our village to Jerusalem I began to notice neighbors—other women like myself—getting off at Binyanei Hauma, the rendezvous point where Jerusalem-area driving students met their teachers. None of them had been at it for as long as I had; I kept secret the exact number of lessons I’d taken over the years, but it was somewhere around 500. They turned into my ad hoc support group sharing triumphs—passing the written test, passing the road test—but also failures. For the first time, I no longer felt alone.
It was through one of these women that I met Eli Ventura, a slim, swarthy nonsmoking driving instructor. Though he didn’t offer insights into the meaning of life, nor did we become friends, Ventura shared the preternatural calm of Kingsley’s Darwan. Nothing fazed him. I could have smashed up his car and he wouldn’t have yelled. Unlike his predecessors, he saw something good about my driving. On our second lesson he mouthed the words I hadn’t heard before and never thought I’d hear: road test. I’d soon be ready.
I took my road test when I was seven months pregnant—my huge stomach bumped against the dashboard. I passed on the first try; a miracle.
A month later my husband bought me a car, a shiny gray Nissan. I thought I’d overcome my fear but when the car arrived I felt paralyzed. For a day and a half, the car sat parked in front of my home until I called a friend who’d been driving since her teens. She climbed in next to me and held my hand and kept me calm as I drove across our tiny town. Having her there had a tranquilizing effect, but I couldn’t call her every time I wanted to go for a ride.
The next time, I took the car out solo, and I reverted to a strategy I’d learned years ago, in that same Orthodox high school where Mr. Burroughs told me that I was “neurologically impaired.” I prayed. I don’t know why I didn’t think of it when I was taking drivers ed from him—chalk that up to having been 17 and stupid. Now I was 42, a grizzled mom and newbie driver. “Please, Hashem, help,” I whispered.
I’ve been praying every since, whenever I get into the car. I pray when another driver comes perilously close on the highway, when I need to squeeze into a too-tight parking space, and when I return home safe and sound, myself and my vehicle in one piece.
In Learning To Drive, Darwan helps Wendy to conquer her fear by teaching her to quiet her mind, but that’s not the full picture. In my mind, driving is about reaching out to God. Like the proverbial foxhole, there’s no real room for atheists on the road. It’s too scary out there to white knuckle it alone.
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Carol Ungar is the author of Jewish Soul Food: Traditional Fare and What It Means, and a prize-winning writer who blogs about traditional Jewish food at Kosher Home Cooking.