I don’t drive while visiting family in Israel. I opt for public transportation and, seriously, what a treat that almost always is.
Getting the vibe of any city comes quicker when you are bussing. If you are a good people watcher you see so much. When you ride the same bus routes every day, you start feeling you belong, seeing so many of the same faces and same routines. But what is special in Jerusalem is how every day brings a surprise or two.
One morning a bus – not the one I was waiting for – pulled up by my stop. Through the window I saw the driver was a woman wearing a hijab. I couldn’t recall having ever seen a woman bus driver in Jerusalem, so seeing a Muslim in a hijab certainly caught my attention.
I am confident I saw what I saw, but now I wish I’d boarded that bus to sneak a photo of the driver. Besides having it to assure myself I wasn’t seeing things, I had the thought of sending the photo to Saudi Arabia where women are slowly beginning to have the right to drive a car. Ironic is one word to describe this strange twist. Insane is another.
Most bus drivers in Jerusalem are male, middle-aged, or older. Most are neither friendly nor helpful. Most also drive too fast – but that is a whole other story.
One morning I was on the No. 24 bus when it stopped to pick up waiting passengers. One person looking to board through the back door was a man in a wheelchair. There was a ramp at the back but the driver had to go to the back to manually open it – something this driver didn’t do. Seeing that nothing was happening, a young man took it upon himself to open the ramp.
I recall how the helpful passenger, wearing a kippah, had difficulty getting the ramp to open and how he broke his key prying the latch. When the ramp opened, the disabled man boarded, and the cap-clad driver looked in the rearview mirror and sped off.
On the 24 the next day, I noticed the driver did not fit the norm. He was much younger and was wearing a kippah. While it is not unusual to see Jerusalem transit drivers wearing kippah, what made this driver stand out were his tzitzit hanging over his seat.
What also set this driver apart was his smile and how he drove at a more reasonable speed. I was liking the ride when I noticed the same man in a wheelchair waiting at the same bus stop. I really liked what I saw next. The driver stopped the bus, put his flashers on, and without hesitation jumped out of his seat to get the ramp down so the man in the wheelchair could board.
It could be the driver was not jaded as his older colleague the day before. Or, maybe, being observant meant doing a mitzvah over and above his job description. What shone brightly was his instinctive willingness to help someone.
I left Jerusalem a week later. It was early morning. It was still dark and it was pouring as I waited for the bus to bring me to the new high-speed train which would get me to Ben-Gurion Airport in 20 minutes. That last day would provide one last surprise.
With a knapsack on my back and a suitcase to lift, a passenger got off the bus to help me with my suitcase. Once aboard, he told me to sit down as he strapped the suitcase into place so it wouldn’t fall off and hurt someone.
When we arrived at the train station, my new best friend didn’t even give me a chance to get my suitcase. He got it right away and carried it off the bus into the train station. I wondered why the young man, who also wore a kippah, was being so attentive to me.
An act of kindness from a stranger is always heartwarming, and to experience and witness mitzvot on my Jerusalem bus rides made me think of their one common denominator: the power of the kippah.