Heartwarming stories from Israel's buses

‘Like a prayer, you know I’ll take you there’

Passengers wear masks as they travel on a bus. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Passengers wear masks as they travel on a bus.
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
It was a snowy December day in Jerusalem. The year was 2013.
I trudged my way down Bar-Ilan Street. My destination was Hadassah Hospital on Mount Scopus, a few kilometers away. I had promised someone who was hospitalized there that I would come to visit him that day.
There were no buses, or so I thought.
Suddenly, I turned to look behind me and seemingly out of nowhere a bus appeared, treading carefully and approaching the bus stop slowly.
It was a sight for sore eyes. As I boarded the bus, Madonna was singing on the radio station the driver was playing. She confirmed that my prayers had been answered.
After all, she shouted, “Like a prayer, you know I’ll take you there,” just as I was paying my fare in close proximity to the driver’s radio.
I posted the story on Facebook. It was an isolated incident, an attempt to be funny, if not risqué, given the probable literal meaning to the words of Madonna’s song, “Like a Prayer.”
I had no idea at the time where I was headed with these stories.
What I did know was that I was about to enter a challenging period in my professional life.
In the spring of 2014, the Israeli government began a legislative process that would last three years toward closing the Israel Broadcasting Authority, public television and radio, which had been my main place of employment since 1981, right after I had arrived from New York to make the Jewish state my home.
I worked in many capacities, from sports reporter to political and diplomatic correspondent, for the English-language service on the radio.
The protracted ordeal of closing the authority was depressing.
I was also coming to the realization that people were sick of politics and politicians and wanted to hear positive stories about the real, regular people who do good deeds on a daily basis.
At the same time, major construction work was taking place on the highways where the bus traveled between my home in Beit Shemesh and work in Jerusalem.
It gave me a long time to look around during my commutes on the bus to find heartwarming stories.
They were not hard to find. One of the first hits among my social media followers was actually a series of stories. Every so often, I’d encounter a haredi (ultra-Orthodox) yeshiva student and secular IDF soldier who would sit next to each other on the bus.
In the first meeting between the two that I witnessed, the yeshiva student and soldier were arguing over what provided greater protection to the country – learning Torah or serving in the military.
During the course of their subsequent meetings on bus rides, the conversation turned to a greater understanding of each other. Ultimately, I boarded the bus one day to find the soldier wearing a kippah and learning Talmud with the yeshiva student but also having enough time to brief the haredi student about the options for serving in the IDF.
Beit Shemesh is a diverse city. At times, the divisions can bring out the worst in people. However, by looking hard enough, I was able to find beautiful expressions of coexistence.
In one of my stories, a haredi man was holding his small son on his lap. The boy was cranky and crying. A Russian woman was sitting nearby and wanted to pacify the small child by offering him a cookie. She told the father what she wanted to do but added that she wasn’t sure the kosher certification would be good enough for a haredi family. The man asked to examine the packaging of the cookies to see which supervision it carried and surprised the woman by saying he’d allow his son to have one.
He explained to her that, after all, the cookies were really kosher and only due to a stricter adherence to the rules, he would not himself buy it. However, he said, she was trying to do a mitzvah so who was he to stop her.
Intergenerational interaction has also been a central theme of my experiences.
Many times I’ve witnessed younger people helping their elders. One time, though, the theme was turned on its head when an older man offered a seat to a kid. The reason was the younger passenger had boarded the bus with crutches.
The boy felt awkward. Passengers were perplexed.
But the man insisted. He explained that thankfully he was feeling fine and that at the particular moment, he could walk with greater ease than the boy could. “When you’re feeling better, join me on the bus again,” he told the teen, “and then you can offer me a seat.”
I soon learned that these stories which I was posting were helping not only me but also many others.
Over the course of time, I’ve encountered a variety of people ranging from cancer patients to members of bereaved families who have told me that the anecdotes have managed to put a smile on their face.
I expanded the venues of my stories from just buses to the streets and market places among other locations.
The Mahaneh Yehuda market in Jerusalem was a place where I found individuals of greater means helping people who would sit on the ground and ask for charity.
An owner of a stall in the market invited a gentleman sitting on the pavement to join him at a Passover seder. He later gave him a job at his fruit and vegetable stand.
One day, I noticed that a woman who sat regularly on the sidewalk across the way had chosen an alternative method to raise funds for her family. Instead of simply sitting there with a cup and her purse, she brought soup and sandwiches. With the help of her children, she sold the homemade foods to passers-by.
A restaurant owner was one of the people walking by. He purchased some of the offerings and took a taste test on the spot. He told the woman that the food was delicious. He gave her his business card and told her to come to the restaurant to try out as a cook.
In 2020, the COVID-19 crisis catapulted the craving for these stories. A friend in the US called me one night and told me that his young son was fearful that “the world was coming to an end.” He asked if I could tell the boy a comforting bedtime story.
As the first lockdown in Israel began to set in during the latter part of March, I posted on Facebook that a policeman had pulled me over to the side of a highway on a Friday afternoon and asked me why I was on the roads.
When I replied that I had brought food to my mom for Shabbat and the coming days, he took out a bouquet of flowers from his police car and asked me to give it to my mother.
When I told him that, actually, I had already delivered the food and was on my way home, he told me to call my mom and wish her a Shabbat Shalom and good health from Rafi the policeman.
There was the story of a boy who walked an older man’s dog while the elder gentleman was isolating. When coronavirus restrictions were eased for a period of time, the boy and man could be seen together. The man was walking the dog but the youngster walked nearby to make sure that everything went smoothly.
I stopped taking the bus in mid-March due to my concerns relating to the virus. But a few of the drivers who had asked me for my phone number periodically contacted me to relay episodes to me that they themselves experienced, so that I could share them on social media.
What stands out to me are the stories about the gratitude that they say has been shown to them by passengers who have had no choice but to continue traveling on buses during the pandemic.
This was a story I posted on November 19, 2020: Bus driver tells me that a passenger got on the bus today, put his magnetic card in the machine to pay the fare, and then seemed to accidentally hand the driver another card.
Here’s how the driver tells the story that ensued:
Driver: “You seem to have dropped something.”
Passenger: “This is for you, my friend.”
Driver: “Excuse me?”
Passenger: “For the past several months, during the pandemic, you’ve been my driver almost everyday. I hate driving. On many days, despite the current situation, it’s been crucial that I go to the office. I would have been fired if not for you.”
The card was a voucher for dinner-for-two at a restaurant.
Passenger: “Don’t worry; it’s valid for a year. Hopefully, it’ll be easier to go out for dinner by then, although it’s also valid for takeout.”
The driver said that he was in a state of shock. He told the passenger that he would have to check with his boss if it’s permissible to accept such an expensive gift from a passenger.
Passenger: “Fine, check. But tell your boss that yesterday, my company landed a big deal and we’re getting bonuses. If I couldn’t have been sure that I’d have a bus ride all those days, I wouldn’t be getting this bonus. My bonus is much larger than the worth of this voucher. So please take it. You’ll make me happy that I’ve been able to show my gratitude.”
If not for the current restrictions, they would have hugged.
That amazing story went viral.
Meanwhile, I’m back on the bus. I am on the lookout for more feel-good stories. I am inspired and determined to keep pursuing this project of showing that there is a bright side to what happens in the world. I pray that I can continue to provide relief to all of us who need it. ■
The writer is an editor and proofreader at ‘The Jerusalem Post.’ Previously, he broadcast on Kol Yisrael and KAN public radio under the name of David Ze’ev.