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Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Only in Israel: A Hitch & A Prayer

Daled Amos tagged me with a meme about Israel in honor of Yom Ha'atzma'ut, Israel's Independence Day. The guidelines:
With Yom Haatzmaut just hours away, I wanted to start a meme--an Israel meme.
I thought it would be a good opportunity to share together experiences we have had in Israel or stories we have heard.
It's an excellent idea, so here is one of the many, many stories I have from my 2 years in Israel. I'm tagging DovBear, Shoshana, SoccerDad, Ayelet, Steg, and Ezer K'Negdo.
On a surprisingly cloudy day, as a late Tuesday afternoon turned into evening, I was trying to hitchhike, or tremp, as it's called, from Jerusalem to Moshav Beit Meir, where Yeshivat Ohr Yerushalayim (OJ) was located. I was standing with dozens of others at the trempiata, or hitchhiking post/bus stop, located just as one exits Jerusalem, before the highway veers around the hills of Harnof with Ramot on the other side of the valley to the north. I was more fortunate then most of the people waiting: With Beit Meir just 15 minutes away, halfway between Jerusalem and Beit Shemesh, most cars would be passing my way. There was even a way for cars to safely drop us off at a traffic circle at the bottom of the hill without costing them more than 15 seconds and from which they could go straight back onto the highway. From there, we would walk under the bridge of the highway and catch another ride from the bottom of the hill up to our yeshiva.

But on this overcast day, cars simply weren't stopping. There were a few charedim (Haredi Jews), a few chilonim (irreligious Jews), and even a couple of Americans waiting. I noticed among those waiting for a hitch an American Charedi who must have been about my age, wearing a hat and holding his hand out silently with a single finger pointed, as is the custom. There was also a pair of chiloni boys, again about my age, one an Ethiopian wearing a sweatshirt with a hood and the other wearing a sweatshirt without a hood, both with chains around their neck and talking loudly - as if they owned the place. As it started to turn to dusk, the air got cold, and those of us with sweatshirts, such as myself with my OJ sweatshirt, were thankful.

Suddenly, a car stopped. The mad rush of hitchers ran to the car, but myself and the other American were closest. The two chiloni kids rushed over as well, yelling "Latrun, Latrun!" - asking if the driver was going as far as the Latrun junction, from which one can head in any of many directions. The driver was headed to Tel Aviv, and was willing to stop at Latrun - it's on the way. But me? The driver was a bit more hesitant. "Ha'im yeish makom l'atzor sham?" [Is there a place to stop there?] Before I could even respond, the chiloni kids told him that there was. They described it to him, he was satisfied, and we jumped in and were ready to go.

The driver was what hitchers like to call the "ultimate hitch". He was driving a new car, which is rare in Israel, and was young - about 25-30 years old. He was well-dressed, clearly a businessman of some sort. These guys are the best to hitch with simply because they drive the absolute fastest - but you don't feel like you're not going to make the next turn like you may in other cars. His hair was slicked back, and he was not wearing a yarmulke, and was also not a religious person. I was sitting behind him, with the Ethiopian on the right side and his friend between us, while the American was seated up front.

After about two minutes, the guys in the back next to me stopped jabbering and spoke to the driver with a voice of urgency. Their request boggled my mind.

"Tefillat HaDerech yesh l'cha?" "Do you have a Tefillat HaDerech?" Tefillas HaDerech is the "Travel Prayer", said when travelling long distances between cities. There is actually a dispute as to whether one would say it from Beit Meir to Jerusalem or back, as it is a short ride and there are always cities next to the highway; but that is unimportant. The Charedi up front looks back at me incredulously, though the chilonim don't notice, wondering the same thing I am: These guys want to say Tefillas HaDerech?! They're obviously not religious, and don't come across as the types to care about such things - but here they are, asking the driver if he has the little card many cars have which has it printed on it.

Unfortunately, though, the driver can't find one. He looks in the dash, he looks on top of the shades, he looks everywhere - but to no avail. The guys are getting a bit worried, but finally one of them asks yet another mind-blower: "Ha'im atta yodeah et zeh b'al peh?" Do you know it by heart? The driver answers, "Cain, betach." Yes. Of course. They ask him to say it, and they'll repeat after him word for word. But first, they pull yet another surprise.

The one in the middle turns to me and motions for my yarmulke. He motions that I should put on my sweatshirt's hood, while he takes my kippa and puts it on. His friend puts his hood over his head. The driver pulls out a kippa from his pocket and places it on his head as well, and begins saying the prayer. The two guys interrupt him every few words and repeat the words after him - the whole process takes about 3 minutes. After they finish, the kid returns my yarmulke and the driver puts his away; the Ethiopian takes off his hood, and they go back to their original conversation. I and the other American are sitting there completely dumbfounded by what just happened, while the rest of the car is completely oblivious.

It was such a slap in the face, at the same time that it was so incredibly inspiring: Here, two religious kids sitting there never even think to ask a driver, particularly an irreligious one, about Tefillas HaDerech; and two completely irreligious kids spend almost ten minutes of the ride obsessing over it.

Messages come at the strangest times in the strangest packages - we must always be aware of the messages around us. As for this story...

Only in Israel.

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