I buckled my seatbelt and adjusted the rearview mirror, brushing the Traveler’s Prayer with the back of my hand. It swung from the mirror’s stem on a string, a small, decorated square of cardboard. Bring us to our desired destination in life, joy, and peace.
I considered saying the prayer, as I was leaving the city limits of Jerusalem for my home in the suburbs. At one time I would certainly have said it. But not today. I didn’t need a 2,000-year-old liturgy to remind me of the perils on the road; I knew my safe return home depended on more than defensive driving. Besides, I didn’t think reciting the prayer would keep me safe. It wasn’t as if I had seen a particularly strong correlation over the years between prayers uttered and prayers answered.
I once loved the idea of reciting the Traveler’s Prayer and the myriad prayers Orthodox Jews recite throughout the day—upon waking, before and after eating, after going to the bathroom. I liked the way Orthodox Judaism elevated physical to spiritual acts, infused the mundane with the holy. Even a routine drive home was occasion to acknowledge our human frailty and dependence on God for safe passage.
That was 25 years ago when I became a baalat tshuva, one who turns in repentance to God.
But these days I had grown weary of the religious rituals and distant from the God who mandated them. Jewish theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel once said that observing Jewish law was like playing musical scales: repetitive and mechanical at times, but necessary if you wanted your life to be a symphony. If that was the case, why after all these years did my life feel more like scales than Schubert’s Ninth? I wondered whether the observance of Jewish law had made me a godlier person, a better person. Or if in fact, it had done the opposite—squelched, with its exhaustive detail and demanding practices, whatever religious spark I once had. These days I longed more for the Dalai Lama’s dictum, “My religion is kindness,” than a morass of 613 commandments. It saddened me. I had sacrificed so much for this way of life, so many freedoms and possibilities.
It was late afternoon; the sun was beginning to set. I shifted into reverse and inched backward out of my parking spot in the small dirt lot at the end of Feldman Street in Geulah where I had visited my aunt in a seniors home down the road. Parking was in short supply in the crowded ultra-Orthodox neighborhood, and the lot was crammed with cars wedged haphazardly at odd angles, as if the drivers had been called away mid-parking to a birth or other emergency.
The Traveler’s Prayer swayed on its string. I wasn’t the only one in Israel with the Traveler’s Prayer. It was ubiquitous—in taxis, buses, trains, in the form of stickers stuck on windshields, cards dangling from mirrors. Some people kept the prayer on credit-sized cards in their wallets while others had it engraved on keychains in the shapes of Stars of David and hamsa hands. There was even a phone application with an audio recording of the prayer in English and Hebrew. You’d think with all these prayers, the entire country would be driving with a fear of God.
No sooner had I pulled out of my spot and maneuvered my way between the parked cars toward Feldman Street than I realized that the lot’s exit had been obstructed by two cars: a shiny gray Audi and a dented white Renault. Since the parking lot was adjacent to a yeshiva, I guessed the owners of the cars were Orthodox. I wondered how they reconciled blocking the parking lot exit with the injunction to love one’s neighbor as oneself. I hoped I wouldn’t have to wait too long to find out.
In the meantime I searched for an escape. The side of the lot that opened onto the street was lined with cars. The side opposite the exit was bordered by a row of anemic-looking trees. On the third side of the lot a concrete building sprawled. Its bottom floor served as a yeshiva while its top stories were under construction. Steel columns jutted from its roof, and a large sign on its face announced: Here with God’s help The World Center of the Hasidim of Ger will be built.
In the early years of my religious exploration I was drawn to Hasidism. In contrast to mainstream Orthodoxy’s emphasis on Talmudic study, it promoted closeness with God, love of one’s fellow Jew, prayer and joy. Hasidism encouraged its followers to go beyond pure observance of Jewish law to acts of goodness, kindness, and mercy. I could use some of that kindness right now, I thought, scanning the lot for a way out.
On the opposite side of the parking lot, across from the yeshiva, were corrugated aluminum panels. These were plastered with black and white pashkevils, wall posters, warning women to dress modestly. I looked at my outfit. In contrast to the mid-calf length skirt of the neighborhood’s ultra-Orthodox women, my denim skirt grazed my knee. My shirt sleeves (below the elbow) met the required standards but their modest effect was undercut by a generously scooped neck. My shirt’s red color stood out among the black and navy tones of the local dress. Though I’m married, my hair was not covered by a wig or kerchief in accordance with the dictates of Jewish law. Instead I wore a multicolored band, common in more modern Orthodox circles.
From my car I called to two men smoking a short distance down Feldman Street. They wore black felt hats with rounded crowns and rims, tipped back on their heads. Their black frock coats reached below their knees, and their black pants were tucked into black socks. They wore long beards, side locks, and glasses. “Excuse me,” I shouted. “I’m trapped in this parking lot. Do you know who these cars belong to?” I asked, motioning to the cars blocking the exit. The men studied me for a moment, one with his hands at his sides and one with his hands folded across his chest, then simultaneously turned away.
Dumbfounded, I sat down in my car, and in an effort to summon the guilty drivers, leaned on the horn. The two smokers started at the blast, and a wigged mother pushing a double stroller jumped. I waited several minutes but the drivers did not appear. Not knowing what else to do, I got out of my car to search for the fugitives.
Next to the yeshiva, from a makeshift stand, a disheveled looking Hasid sold religious paraphernalia: holy books, kippahs, and CDs called Pour Out Your Heart and The Best of Ger. I approached him.
“I was wondering if you could help,” I said. “Two cars are blocking the exit to the lot. Do you know who they belong to?”
He glanced in the direction of the exit.
“I’m sorry, I don’t,” he shrugged. His coat was tattered and his shirt more gray than white.
“Why are there so many cars today?” I asked.
“The Rebbe is visiting the yeshiva,” he said. “He’s giving a blessing to a newly married couple. Such an honor. With his blessing they will merit many children, Torah scholars.” He closed his eyes and smiled at the thought of their bright future.
My future was bright, too, when I married my Orthodox husband. I had searched for over 10 years for a life of truth and purpose. When I began studying at Aish Hatorah in Toronto in the 1980s and met the Orthodox families affiliated with the organization, I looked no further. I saw a beauty and dignity in their way of life that I had not seen elsewhere. I admired their sense of family, community, and the many acts of kindness they performed. I wanted that life for myself and my future family. As I circled the perimeter of the lot, I recalled the Sabbath meals with the Hochs, the Schwartzes, and the Newmans and a longing rose up in me.
Still no sign of the drivers. I ground holes in the dirt with the heels of my shoes, read old text messages on my phone, returned to my car and ate the few almonds I found in the glove compartment. I looked at my watch. This delay would put me in the middle of rush-hour traffic. I tried to fathom the lack of consideration of these drivers, but failed. Maybe if I had recited the Traveler’s Prayer, I wouldn’t be in this predicament. I didn’t really believe that, did I? Either way, its words played in my mind. Rescue us from any enemy or ambush on the way and from all afflictions that trouble the world.
Some 20 minutes later, the driver of the Renault moseyed back to his car. From my car window, I watched him maneuver his belly behind the steering wheel and drop onto his seat, then I leapt out, strode over, and rapped on his window.
“Hey you,” I let loose. “You know you blocked me in this lot for the past half hour?”
He was sixtyish with a shiny, rounded forehead and silver-tinged peyot. A Traveler’s Prayer, engraved on a silver rectangle, dangled from his rearview mirror. He looked over his shoulder and began to reverse.
“What do you have to say for yourself?”
He didn’t respond, didn’t even look in my direction.
“Common decency comes before the Torah,” I shouted.
He turned the radio on full volume. I believe with complete faith in the coming of the Messiah. Though he tarries, I will wait for him every day.
“You should be ashamed of yourself. This behavior is a desecration of the Holy Name.” I screamed over the music. Still no reaction from the driver.
“Where are your virtues?” I railed.
He turned down the radio, opened his window, and narrowed his eyes.
“Where are your virtues? A woman alone cavorting among men,” he said in a seething tone, and closed the window.
I looked around. In fact, some 20 men from the yeshiva had gathered just beyond the lot on Feldman Street. They were standing sideways, looking at me aslant. When I returned their gaze, they looked away, adjusted their glasses, and re-positioned their hats. One began to sway fervently in prayer.
I clenched my fists, growled, and kicked the side of his car. His contempt made me boil. My own religious failings were one thing. I was a skeptic, had grown up with Western liberal values and influences that weakened my belief. But he and his group of Hasidim grew up reciting the Shema and Maimonides’ 13 principles of faith. They devoted themselves wholly to Torah study and meticulous observance of its commandments. They were the self-proclaimed “pious ones.” I may not have been shining too brightly at that moment, but he and his Hasidim should have been lighting up the sky in a blinding display of righteousness.
He revved his engine and with a belch of exhaust drove away.
Moments later the driver and passenger of the gray Audi returned, settled in their seats and buckled their belts. The driver was a well-groomed young man with a copper beard, gold-rimmed glasses, and a black velvet kippah. His passenger was an elderly man with a broad face, full white beard, and black hat. I approached the car.
“Hey, open up.” I shouted knocking on the driver’s window.
He ignored me and kept his eyes fixed on the rearview mirror. The old man looked at his hands folded in his lap.
“Hey, open the window now. I have something to say to you.”
He kept ignoring me but I didn’t let up.
“You know you guys blocked me in this parking lot for the past half hour. What exactly were you thinking? “
The more I vented, the more righteous I felt.
“How could you be so inconsiderate? You call yourselves religious? Orthodox?”
A murmur went up among the Hasidim on the sidelines.
Getting no response from the driver, I decided to try my luck with the old man. I rounded the hood of the car to get to the passenger’s side when a group of five ultra-Orthodox men huddled together to block my passage. They wore the beards and glasses of their counterparts but were hulking in comparison. Standing shoulder to shoulder, they formed a formidable black wall. The one in the middle, with jowls, raised his palm in a stop gesture.
“Back off,” he said in a firm voice. His peyot quivered.
“I need to speak to him.”
“You may not.”
The wall of men stepped forward and curved around me. I looked at their hunched shoulders and scowling faces and reconsidered pressing the issue of the obstructed exit. But I couldn’t back down; I had a wrong to right.
“Why can’t I? He blocked me in this parking lot.”
“Because he’s the Rebbe of Ger.”
The Rebbe of Ger was the leader of the largest Hasidic dynasty in Israel, with thousands, if not tens of thousands of followers. He was the direct descendant of a long line of rabbis stretching back to Poland sometime in the 19th century, a righteous and holy man … and the parking felon.
I tried to reconcile his eminence with his crime. Surely someone as saintly as the Rebbe would not block 50 cars in a parking lot. Of his followers in the parking lot, I expected little, but of the Rebbe. … Every person delayed in that lot had a friend waiting on a street corner, a child to collect from daycare, a bill to pay before the post office closed. The Rebbe must have been aware. His conduct, even in the matter of parking, should have been beyond reproach.
“Please,” I said. I had to understand how he could have let this happen.
The guard put a hand on his hip.
“What’s wrong with you? Do you understand who this man is? The Rebbe is not an ordinary person like you or me. Now, show some respect and move out of the way.”
I looked through the front windshield of the Audi and thought I saw the Rebbe meet my gaze. Then I stepped back and stumbled on the uneven ground.
He wasn’t my leader or mentor, far from it, but all the same, his behavior mattered. It mattered because it represented the ideal for which I had sacrificed so much. Instead of sunning on the beaches in Barbados, eating in Thai and Portuguese restaurants with friends, cycling or browsing in antique markets on Saturdays, instead of a more carefree existence with around ten thousand fewer obligations to a Higher Power than I have today, I moved to Israel, raised my three children in an Orthodox community with exacting standards of behavior, attended synagogue and religious studies programs, spent every Friday for 25 years in the kitchen cooking Sabbath and holiday meals for my family and the many guests whom we are mandated to invite in the spirit of hospitality. And I did this all in the hope of elevating my and my children’s conduct, sanctifying our lives, making the world a holier place.
Yet there I was shrieking at the drivers, fumbling to keep the commandments, struggling in my relationship with God, no sign of redemption in sight. There was a group of Hasidim whose behavior was anything but godly. And there was the Rebbe of Ger behaving no better than the lowly rest of us. For some time I had been thinking that I had failed the system but perhaps it had failed me, it had failed all of us.
Turning away from the Rebbe and the guards, I walked back to my car.
A line of cars led by the Rebbe’s Audi then some of the formerly trapped cars in the lot, inched down Feldman Street. I took my place in line and stared straight ahead.
No one felt any remorse for blocking me. The Rebbe, great sage and spiritual leader, couldn’t have cared less. Then, of course, there was my personal humiliation, I had just ranted and raved and made a fool of myself: I had shouted at the Rebbe of Ger. I cringed.
Abraham Joshua Heschel was wrong. By observing Jewish law we weren’t playing a symphony; we were barely hitting the right notes. Where was the grace the Traveler’s Prayer invokes? Let us find grace, kindness, and compassion from You and from all who see us.
The line of cars moved forward when I noticed a large man barreling toward me from the front of the convoy. His shirt tails and tzitzit flapped as he ran, and he held one hand on his head to keep his kippah from flying off. He stopped next to my car and motioned to me to open my window. I opened it a crack.
“I have a message from the Rebbe,” he said, out of breath. He was sweating and his cheeks were flushed. “He delayed you. He wasn’t aware that his driver had blocked the exit to the parking lot. He apologizes and asks your forgiveness.” He placed a palm on his chest as if he had personally brought me the burden of the Rebbe’s guilt.
He stood there panting, waiting for my response. The crane groaned behind the yeshiva. An elderly couple in the seniors home stepped out onto their balcony and looked down over their boxed geraniums.
I leaned my head against the headrest. The Rebbe of Ger sent an emissary to apologize to me; I felt humbled. There was one person, one, behaving the way we were supposed to, with sensitivity and compassion, in the image of God. It wasn’t much but it was something, some small hope.
As for me, with or without Orthodox Jewish practice, I’d probably spend the rest of my life trying to become the person I wanted to be and falling short. At least Orthodoxy sets the bar high with its clear guidelines for behavior and creates a structure with its laws, which promotes acts of goodness. Like any system, there is potential misinterpretation and abuse but there is, at the same time, potential for greatness. I had seen it again and again. I thought of my children, now young adults. Perhaps they were the best testament to this life I had chosen: three fine individuals, principled and kind-hearted. I had no doubt that each one of them would have helped a woman, like me, trapped in a parking lot.
I turned to the young man standing next to my car. “Thank you,” I said. “Please tell the Rebbe that I forgive him.” I released my grip on the steering wheel and let my hands drop to my sides. I sighed and closed my eyes. Behind my lids, hundreds of traveler’s prayers swung and whirled. Hear our pleas, for You are a God who hears prayers and pleas.
The car behind me honked and I lurched forward. At the end of Feldman Street, I turned right onto Malchei Yisrael, Kings of Israel, and joined the traffic streaming out of Jerusalem.
Miriam Mandel Levi’s essays have appeared in Creative Nonfiction’s anthology Same Time Next Week, Brain, Child, Literary Mama, and Under the Sun magazine.