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March 3, 1999
Finding a taxicab in the Katamonim neighborhood of Jerusalem is never easy. Drivers will commonly stop, ask where you're going, and if they don't like the destination, speed off. But a couple of weeks ago, two friends and I got into a different sort of taxi. We told the driver where we wanted to go, and he said, "Fine, I'll turn around." We asked for the meter, and on it went, no complaints. Such a request is usually met with a profound sense of insult, then resentment, then protracted haggling. But this time, a smile.
The true test came two blocks later. Many drivers will turn on the meter when asked -- but then will inflate the fare by taking the longest route possible. When the road forked, this cabbie asked which way we preferred.
My companions, two schoolmates with whom I share a daily taxi ride to the southernmost tip of Jerusalem, were as surprised as I. We smiled at one another, relieved to have avoided the ritual moments of discomfort.
I turned around (having clambered into the front seat) and began discussing our school's upcoming weekend retreat, which I am helping to organize.
Our school is a women's institute for the advanced study of traditional Jewish texts, including the Hebrew Bible, the compendium of law and lore called Talmud, and the canon of books that constitute the Jews' legal and exegetical traditions. As in most fields of intellectual endeavor, women entered this one relatively recently. Although Bible study has been an accepted part of girls' curriculum for almost a century, women have only begun studying Talmud rigorously during the past thirty years. Within a large part of the Orthodox community, this scholarship remains controversial.
I hoped that at the retreat we would grapple with some of the tensions caused in Jewish women's daily lives by this controversy. I began telling my friends about the session I was planning, in which we would use improvisational comedy skits to highlight some specific problems and then spark a more serious discussion of the issues raised. As I craned my neck to speak to them, I made the mistake of failing to include the driver. I had naively assumed that the extent of our relationship was the simple exchange of transportation for legal tender, but this was Israel, where a hack and his fare become, however briefly, part of each other's lives: each is entitled not only to an opinion, but to its expression.
Even had I considered all this, I would not have expected this cabbie to have an opinion on the topic at hand. His head was uncovered, his accent was Yemenite -- he had all the trappings of a Jew who had emigrated from the East a generation ago and had largely left Orthodox observance. What would he know or care about the cause of women's Talmud study?
"According to the Torah," he broke in augustly, referring to the text broadly as Jewish law, "women don't have to study, but they are certainly permitted to if they wish."
The three of us looked at one another and giggled nervously at the unexpected interruption. Only the native-born Israeli among us, Tehilla, was in possession of her tongue. "Yes, that's right," she said.
"You have a practical problem," he went on. "The way it's always been is that the husband does the learning and the wife supports him by cooking, cleaning, and taking care of the kids. That's her role. Do you know of any husband who's going to take time to do housework, just so his wife can study?"
"Okay." Our cabbie paused to consider this information for a moment, and then continued. "But that's unusual. In most cases, it's still the old way. And that's how most women want it. If they didn't, and the husband insisted on their doing the housework anyway, he would be tovel ve-sheretz beyado."
I was astounded. He had used a phrase dating back to the rabbinic Hebrew of the first centuries of the millennium, the literal meaning of which is, "He immerses himself with an insect in his hand." The early sages used the metaphor of ritual immersion, which is only spiritually efficacious when one has distanced oneself from the sin (or, figuratively, the creepy-crawly insect) for which one is atoning. Our driver, in using the phrase to refer to Torah study, had expanded the classical expression to depict the vitiation of a good act by carrying it out improperly.
It is not unusual to hear more ancient layers of Hebrew intercalated into modern speech. This term is not so common, however, and our cabbie's use of it was gloriously illustrative. Tehilla gave voice to our curiosity, saying, "It sounds like you've done some Torah study yourself."
"Oh, yeah," he said with a dismissive wave. "My grandfather and father were rabbis and all that. I went to yeshiva as a boy, but that stuff's not for me."
As we rounded the final corner before our destination, I felt wistful -- and disappointed that we couldn't drive another several kilometers together. As he pulled up to the curb, we wished each other well, once again employing a gentle, archaic Hebrew. "Go in peace," he wished us. "May your day be blessed by God," we returned. When he turned north and drove off, I felt a surge of joy. Here was an exchange shaped, however subtly, by a textual tradition reaching back thousands of years. Somehow, an ancient form of Hebrew had been transmitted to him, more or less intact -- as it now had to me, despite its having been lost to my family for generations. As important as the transmission, though, was his readiness to invest the old phrase with new meaning, so that it spoke to a new situation.
Living in Jerusalem, vestiges of the ancient past are inescapable, even oppressive. It is a rare and hopeful day when the old shards and words are dusted off, resuscitated, and wielded as ploughshares rather than swords.
Miriam Udel Lambert is a former Atlantic Unbound intern now studying in Israel. This is her third Atlantic Abroad dispatch.
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