Where there’s a wheel...

A Jerusalem taxi driver shows that God moves in mysterious ways.

Shimshon Oren 311 (photo credit: Liat Collins)
Shimshon Oren 311
(photo credit: Liat Collins)
He is not your middle-of-the-road Jerusalem taxi driver – the type who routinely discuss the state of the nation/government or Betar Soccer Club (none of them in great shape, apparently).
Oren is on a nonstop spiritual journey.
His business card states, in English and Hebrew, “Yeshiva on Wheels,” and as he drives around the city he hopes to teach and to learn.
He did not always live in this kind of fast lane. He says he found his vocation about two years ago. And, in the way of many of the strongest religious experiences, it started from a low point.
“I had been working at the Tel-Ad [television] studios as the manager in charge of props and scenery. After the company lost the Channel 2 franchise, I lost my job, along with hundreds of others, and started to drive a taxi,” he recalls.
“After three days, I couldn’t take any more. I came home, threw everything down and thought that that was it. Then I picked up the Zohar [the essential book of kabbalistic thinking] and after reading what I found there, I knew what I had to do.”
Oren, a 55-year-old native Jerusalemite, takes the view that everything is for the best and decided to turn what he was doing into something he could enjoy.
“Look, being a taxi driver in Jerusalem is not easy, there’s not much work, not much money,” he says. It’s obviously hard to turn taxi driving into an uplifting experience, even in the Holy City, but Oren is doing his best.
He seems driven by Kabbala – he refers to himself in the first person plural, relating to the different elements that make up the human soul – and declines to define himself as Orthodox, despite his appearance and behavior, because “I don’t keep all the 613 commandments.”
Like taxi drivers in any capital city in the world, he has his fair (or fare) share of strange tales, but this being Jerusalem, some of his experiences are unique – as befits the very concept of turning a taxi into a mobile yeshiva where the passengers become part of a hevruta.
“Once I had an American lady who got in my cab,” recalls Oren. “She got in on Rehov Diskin [outside the medical center] and the minute I saw her eyes in the mirror I somehow knew she didn’t have children. It turned out she had just come from a fertility treatment. I took her where she wanted to go... but told her she should really be going to Rachel’s Tomb, the best place to pray if you want to have a baby... Later on she called me and said I was right and asked me to drive her there.”
Not all rides end with spiritual, or even financial, reward. “On Thursday, I had a passenger I could feel was unbalanced. He wanted to go to the Western Wall, but then changed his mind and asked me to take him back to the mall in Talpiot where I’d picked him up. In the end, Igave him money instead of him paying me. I could see he was disturbed,so what could I do?”
Oren picks his subjects to suit his passengers. “I often ask people what they want to talk about, what’s on their minds.” On my short journey, during Hanukka, we not only discussed Hebrew linguistics, something both of us, it turns out, are interested in, but also the nature of miracles.
Oren, who says he studied at Yale in Connecticut, can speak English (albeit heavily accented) and evidently likes wordplay in both languages. At some point in our trip, he tried to make the case that the Hebrew word ness and its English translation “miracle” are really the same: If you break “miracle” into three syllables you get mi rak k’el – who if not only God.
I suspect the unplanned religious studies could drive some passengers around the bend, but Oren says his approach is usually well received – a spiritual pick-up, as it were.
I didn’t have a religious experience on the road to Katamon, but it beat talking about the weather (or Beitar’s misfortunes).
Oren, the divorced father of two (his daughter was recently married), says he is now very happy with his work and the opportunities it provides him.
“The world is a beautiful place,” he declares, when I speak to himbetween fares on his mobile phone in his mobile yeshiva on a Saturdaynight, a couple of hours after Shabbat.
What is his mostimportant lesson in life? “Always be optimistic and look on the brightside of things. And always talk positively and say nice things. Afterall, we create things with our words, so they should only be good.” Nota bad point to drive home.