I heard a story, which I have every reason to believe is true, that once Reb Moshe Feinstein was being driven on the highway and a child in the back seat of a passing station wagon waved at him. Without any inhibitions the Gaon waved back, which brought the passengers in Reb Moshe’s car to inquire, “Do you know the boy?”
Reb Moshe sheepishly shook his head and commented, “A Yiddishe ponim!” (looks like the features of a Jewish face).
This is an endearing story for often we meet strangers or even people who look vaguely familiar and a wave will usually elicit a response, except from the most hardened individuals. Allow me to share some of my own experiences of encountering Yiddishe ponims.
Because I travel a lot, and many people know who I am, I am very “bageled.” Yes, there is actually an expression to portray one Jew acknowledging another. The term is bageling and it is defined by the Urban Dictionary as, “You are Jewish, and you want other people around you to know that, so you say or do something Jewish in nature in order to drop the hint so they know you’re one of the tribe.”
I was in the Narita Airport (as in Tokyo, Japan, for those not familiar) and, as always, I selected what I thought was the most unobtrusive location to daven Mincha. And sure enough, by the time I stepped out of Shemonah Esrai and opened my eyes there were two upper-middle-aged Hadassah ladies waiting to say hello. I guess bageling in Japan is at a premium.
Perhaps my most unique bagel (if I may convert this gerund into a noun) was when I stepped into a supermarket in Omaha, Nebraska. Suddenly a teenage girl turned and, cupping her hands, called out, “Ima.” The woman she was addressing was no more than two feet away. “What time is candle-lighting?” the teenager wished to know, critical information for a Tuesday afternoon.
Before I get to my clincher story, which is what prompted me to write this column, I will share one more anecdote roughly, even if not technically, connected. Years ago, I was in a yellow cab in New York City (and fortunately two of my daughters were with me, so I have definitive proof of the veracity of this story) and, as is my policy, I engaged the driver in a conversation. The driver, as is so common in New York City, was not an American native but an immigrant. But this driver, instead of coming from somewhere in East Africa or Pakistan, was from Romania. He commented that it was unusual for passengers to speak to the driver and he was appreciative of my inquiries and conversation.
I noted that I had actually written a book (“Hey, Taxi!”) about tales told in taxies and recounted by cabbies. The driver, quite remarkably, nodded his head in recognition and told me that he had read the book. I assumed, as did my daughters, that he was just trying to be polite, as the odds were infinitesimal that this non-Jewish Romanian immigrant of limited English skills could have actually read my book.
I guess my nonplussed reaction was very obvious and the driver blurted out, “I assume you are referring to “Hey, Taxi!” It’s a good thing that the Tellers in the car were not at the driving wheel for we surely would have braked short or performed some other incredulity-prompted driving hazard. As one, we rolled our eyes in an involuntary expression of deep shock.
And as if knowing the title of the book was not enough, the cabbie began relating some of the book’s stories. Accurately. I have family members not as expert as he was in the book’s content.
Factually, “Hey Taxi!” is one of my best-sellers, but that still cannot explain how this gentleman came across the book and actually read it. His familiarity would be akin to me reading a book on quantum mechanics in Nepalese and remembering the scales of the subatomic particles.
My most flattering fantasies of book distribution could not explain this anomaly – until the cabbie himself explained it. His job behind the wheel does not cover all of his expenses, so he moonlights for the Jewish Institute for the Blind typing books that are rendered into Braille. “Hey, Taxi!” was one of the books that he converted, and because of his daytime job he paid extra attention to what he was inputting.
One more tale. Because I have been teaching and lecturing for decades, a lot of people have seen and heard me, making me a likely subject for bageling. Often the gesture is less discreet and takes the form of frontal gawking and waving. Invariably, if a stranger approaches me, I can guess that they heard me speak somewhere or that I taught their daughter in seminary. Of course there are exceptions, but they are usually easily explained.
The week I am writing this column was a major exception. I had just landed from Israel and was making my way past border control when I saw a scene that intrigued even not-very-curious me. Someone was trying to get into the country with a passport that was of dubious kashrus and the border agent was having none of it. Basically, she was conducting a bust when she looked up and saw me.
“Rabbi Teller, Rabbi Teller!” she beckoned, while simultaneously having her colleagues subdue and lead away the suspect. Something was definitely wrong with this picture until the border agent explained, to my best poker face, that she had been a student of mine in Michlelet Esther many years ago.
I felt as if I was reliving the theme song of Candid Camera: “When you least expect it, you’re elected…”