Back in the driver's seat

Jerusalem's only haredi woman taxi driver, Revital Levi, fills a unique niche in her community.

taxi lady 224 88 (photo credit: tamar LaFontaine)
taxi lady 224 88
(photo credit: tamar LaFontaine)
Revital Levi is probably the only taxi driver in Jerusalem who not only provides her passengers with a safe and pleasant ride but also with tasty cake recipes to grace their Shabbat tables. But that's not the only distinction she holds. This Pisgat Ze'ev mother of seven claims to be the city's only haredi female taxi driver and the only cabbie offering a taxi service exclusively for women. "I am an unconventional person," explains Levi, 37. "I tend to think outside the box. My husband, Yosef, has been a taxi driver for the past three years. He was working very hard and coming home very late every night. The kids started to refer to him as 'abba shel Shabbat' [Shabbat father] because they hardly saw him other than on Shabbat." Levi had been a stay-at-home mom since her first son was born 15 years ago. "Since I already had a driver's license, I decided I could help my husband out, thus enabling him to spend more time with the children," she says. "Also, I was constantly hearing on the radio women asking rabbis if they could travel alone in a taxi driven by a man inside the city at night or outside the city at all," she continues. "The rabbis said that riding in a cab outside the city was problematic. Inside Jerusalem, some ruled that it was okay until 10 p.m., others until midnight. But it is a problem. I decided that I could provide an answer to these problems." So Levi started studying for her taxi license. But before she did, she consulted a number of leading rabbis from both the Eda Haredit (Ashkenazi) and the Sephardi haredi communities. "Even though some of these rabbis normally frown on women driving, they all said it was okay since I already had a driver's license," says Levi. "Everyone said that they welcomed the idea of a religious woman taxi driver serving only women because I could provide a much needed service for women." Levi has been offering such a service for the past year. "Even women who are not religious often feel uncomfortable getting in a cab driven by a man, especially at night," she explains. "They feel much more comfortable traveling with a female driver. Yes, there are a number of other women cab drivers in Jerusalem but, to my knowledge, none of them is religious and none caters only to women." Levi does take couples or families - but never men alone. She works by invitation only, almost never picking up fares in the street. "I advertise in a haredi newspaper and I am listed in the English [haredi] telephone directory - the Newcomer's Guide. Women from all walks of life call me," she says. Levi was raised in a modern Orthodox family in Gush Etzion. "My father was a tour guide and owned the Menora Hotel on King David Street in Jerusalem," she says. "I guess that is why I love to work with tourists. Today, most of my passengers are tourists. They tend to use taxis more than Israelis." Before getting married, she trained as a pastry chef and worked in the King David Hotel. "I still enjoy baking as a hobby. While I am driving, I like to share some of my special recipes with my passengers. I think they really appreciate it." Levi's work takes her both inside Jerusalem and out. The bulk of her time is spent driving women to and from Ben-Gurion Airport at night and in the early hours of the morning. At first Levi found that her poor English was a problem. "I could barely speak [English]," she says. "But the job forced me to and now my English has greatly improved. I always ask my passengers to correct me when I make mistakes. This way I have learned a lot and I now feel much more confident speaking English than I did when I first started driving the cab." Levi admits that being a haredi woman taxi driver has its drawbacks. "When I am driving, people tend to stare at me," she says. "Some male drivers honk. Also, I have been stopped a number of times by the police even though I was not violating any traffic regulations or laws. The officers simply couldn't believe that a religious woman was legally driving a cab. I always present my license that clearly says I have a taxi license. Even so, some police officers still ask me if I am licensed to drive a cab." What was her most embarrassing moment? "I was asked by an Israeli woman to pick up her young niece from the airport and bring her to Ramat Shlomo," she recounts. "The aunt even helped me to prepare a sign in English with the girl's name. I got to the airport around 3 a.m. The flight was coming out and I held up the sign. I saw a young religious girl of about 17 looking around and I held up the sign and asked her if she was this person and had just arrived on this flight number. She said yes. So I said that I was there to take her to Jerusalem. She came with me to the cab and we left for Jerusalem. "As we approached the city, I asked her something about her aunt in Ramat Shlomo. Suddenly, she said, 'What aunt in Ramat Shlomo? I want to go to Kiryat Sefer.' It was then that I realized she was not my fare. "Since then, when I have to pick someone up at the airport at a relative's request, I try to have the Israeli relative talk to the person before I take her in the cab," she says. Levi found herself in another awkward situation the one time she actually did pick up a passenger in the street. "I was hailed by a man and his wife with their grown son who was in a wheelchair," she recalls. "I was sure that all three wanted a cab, so I stopped. The husband and wife lifted the son out of the wheelchair and put him the front seat of the car next to me. They folded his wheelchair and put it in the trunk. Then they told me that someone would be meeting their son at his destination. That is when I realized that the parents would not be traveling with me. "I thought - what should I do? I would be driving alone with a man seated next to me. If someone saw me, they would not know he was in a wheelchair," continues Levi. "But on the other hand, it would have been really horrible to force the parents to lift their son out - both logistically and psychologically. They would think I didn't want a handicapped person in the cab. So, I decided to take him. This was the only time I drove with a man alone in the cab. It would have been a disaster to have done otherwise. "For me, becoming a taxi driver has been wonderful," says Levi. "I was at home for years with my children. Now, I get out and go all around the country. Best of all, I don't have to worry about my kids. The best babysitter in the world - my husband - takes care of them. And this has given him the opportunity to be with the children, something he had little time for the last few years."