It was the first of the intermediate days of Passover 2010, and my two older sons decided to wake up really early – around 5 a.m. – and head out with me by car in the expectation of getting in a full day seeing the country around Phoenix, Arizona, specifically the Sedona and Grand Canyon areas.
We were staying at a hotel in the area and were eager to see the renowned natural landmarks. We decided on the way that we would fill up with gas but passed several exits without seeing any obvious signs of a fill-up location. Finally we came across an exit that had what I can only describe as an old-fashioned convenience store featuring a station with pumps that were already antiquated when I was growing up in the 1970s.
It was around 6:30 a.m. and still dark, and I could see a light through the dirty front window of the convenience store. We waited in the car for someone to come out and fill us up, but no one came. Not wanting to honk at that early hour, I got out of the car, leaving my two big boys to enjoy the quiet of the cool morning.
As I approached the store, I noticed some signs advertising novelty items, knives and guns. I pushed open the door – and felt as though I had traveled back in time or been transported into an episode of “The Twilight Zone.”
Standing behind a table facing the front door was the most vicious-looking person I had ever seen in close quarters. He was stout and strong. Both his exposed arms were covered with tattoos. He had rings on all his fingers, or at least it seemed that way, and was wearing a black leather vest. He didn’t smile, but just stared straight at me. Suddenly, I was frightened. It occurred to me that perhaps I should have worn a hat on this outing rather than my yarmulke.
Nevertheless, taking my chances, I smiled, said good morning, and asked if I could fill up with gas. He responded cordially that I could. I had brought my credit card into the store with me, but realized it might not be a good idea to give it to this person. I asked if I could pay with cash. I told him I had some in the car. I figured that by returning to the car I could catch my breath or even escape. No problem, he said.
Then he hesitated for a moment and asked, “Are you Jewish?”
I was suddenly grateful that I had left the keys inside the car. My eldest son, if need be, could drive away quickly if he heard gunshots or screaming coming from the store.
I paused before responding to the question, deliberating the potential consequences of my answer. But I figured it was ridiculous to be caught in an obvious lie – I was wearing a yarmulke, after all – even if I felt my life could well be in danger. I inhaled, eyed him cautiously while keeping the exit in view, and responded, “Yes, I am.”
He reached into his shirt and started to pull something out. At that point I was thinking it was time to say Shema. He then revealed a thick necklace chain and said with a big smile “Ah, family!”
I stared at him blankly. He lifted up the item dangling from the chain for me to see more clearly. It was a Star of David. I began to understand. I was incredibly relieved, but also confused. This did not add up for me, and I decided to see if he was being honest. “Wow,” I said. “What’s your Hebrew name?”
He paused for a couple of seconds before saying “Yehuda Bob.”
“What?” I asked. He repeated his name.
“Are you sure?” I asked. “Perhaps it is Yehuda Bar, or Yehuda something else?”
He was emphatic. It was Yehuda Bob.
He then made a fist and called me over to see it – just when I thought I’d escaped a scary fate. I glanced at his fists and saw Hebrew letters tattooed onto his hands and arms. I then took a closer look at what was permanently inked on his skin.