Niles the Barber loves repeating his life story. Even though I only took the bus for four years, I heard it dozens of times. His real name is Niles Levy and he works in a company that manufactures women’s underwear, or “pahn-ties,” as he says it in his posh, British accent.
Everyone on the bus calls him “The Barber,” because he would tell anyone willing to listen that he used to work for Vidal Sassoon, in London. No, seriously, the guy with the big black kippah used to cut ladies’ hair. I guess that’s why he has carefully gelled grey curls cascading below his skullcap.
In retrospect, it’s odd that such a religious man sells lingerie, but like most men in Deal, New Jersey, he probably fell into a family business. In this case, I would assume his wife’s family. However, at the time, it didn’t seem strange to me at all; everyone else on the bus worked for a family business of some sorts, whether it was underwear, electronics or watches.
The way The Barber tells it, he met his wife, Lily, fell in love with her, and she taught him to fall in love with God. That’s the story – from Vidal Sassoon to God, Lily and “pahn-ties.” I always hoped to learn more details, but he kept things succinct.
I’ve never met Lily, but she was, and still is, very Orthodox and of Sephardic descent. Specifically, her family is from Aleppo, in Syria. If you think that’s a minor detail, then you’ve obviously never taken the bus.
Everyone on the giant purple chartered monstrosity from Deal to Manhattan is Jewish, except for Carlos, the driver. Everyone on the bus is very proud of being Syrian from Aleppo, or “SY” as they call it. Everyone, that is except my mother and I, of German-Polish descent, Larry the accountant, whose parents are Swedish and who helped me with math homework, and Moshe, who moved to New Jersey from Morocco, helped me with French homework, and had the bad luck of starting to take the bus on September 11, 2001, two days after I started commuting to New York.
I relished the fact that, like me, Niles isn’t actually SY. The truth, though, is that he wasn’t like me at all, because he is one of the rare outsiders who were accepted into the Deal Syrian community. (They say Brooklyn SYs are even less open to Ashkenazim – maybe because there are more of us there.) My family was not among those rare few, a fact that became clearer to me after each year of elementary and middle school.
The Barber went to one of the many synagogues on the bus’ morning route, which stops at one SY institution after the other, picking up men on the way to work in New York after Shaharit prayers. If it was not a Monday or a Thursday, when the Torah is read, then at least 10 men prayed together over the rumbling of the exhaust as the bus raced down the Garden State Parkway. Sometimes, my mother and I, the only regular women commuters, would peer up from our shared New York Times to say Amen in between the loud chants. I was allowed to miss Shaharit in school, because the principal thought I was participating in the “bus minyan,” but I never did, even though I really wasn’t a rebellious teenager. Being too lazy and tired to pray in the morning was probably my biggest insurrection, and my mother, who always sat right next to me in one of the front rows, didn’t seem to care.
Regardless, this minyan that I was supposedly taking place in was run by the Barber. Of course, even if I had prayed I would not have counted as one of the 10 since I’m female.
Actually, The Barber ran everything on the bus. The Barber was the gabbai, who organized prayers and handed out kippahs and prayer books to those who didn’t have. They, along with decks of cards and poker chips were stored on the overhead shelf. The Barber was the bookie for the bridge and poker games with tabs that were never paid. Men played on card tables in the back of the bus, where two men sat facing backwards and another two faced the front. I ventured back there no more than a handful of times during my years on the bus; women weren’t exactly welcome in those games. The Barber collected payment for each day’s bus rides, and handed out cards in the beginning of the month to those who paid the monthly fee, like my mother and me. The Barber set the Friday schedule every week, which fluctuated depending on what time the sun set, so the bus’ denizens could be home in time for the Sabbath.
One of the highlights of riding the bus was The Barber’s speeches, which usually went something like this:
“It behooves you to pay for your monthly pass as close to the beginning of the month as possible,” he would say into the bus’ microphone.
“Behooooooooooves,” some men in the back of the bus would invariably shout back, mocking The Barber’s Britishness. There was something so incongruous about The Barber’s accent and love for big words.
He looked just like the other men on the bus. They were mostly olive-skinned, middle-aged and older, with potbellies, balding, some graying. Most of them dressed alike. There was one guy, Chemi, whose son-in-law is one of the most successful hassidic singers of all time. Chemi would wear Hawaiian shirts, but that was unusual. Everyone else sported white or blue, solid or pinstriped button-down shirts tucked into black or navy or grey slacks. Almost everyone on the 7 a.m. bus, which I took, worked in wholesale, and most men on the second, 8 a.m bus, worked in retail, but they all either played cards or learned Talmud – generally depending on whether they wore a kippah to work or not – on the bus rides into the city and back.
Of course it wasn’t just involvement in the daily business that made him a central figure in the bus hierarchy, The Barber also had a nickname like just about everyone else. Other than The Barber, there was Armani, who wore the shiniest shoes of all and collected the money when The Barber was on vacation. There was also Ribs, who was pretty rotund as an adult, but had been a skinny teenager. I believed it, since I knew Ribs Jr., Eddie, who was in the grade below me in middle school.
But, while all the other men sounded like New Jersey/Brooklyn wise guys from a mob movie, The Barber sounded like Prince Charles. There was something about his accent and his sophisticated past that made him seem authoritative, different, more interesting than everyone else on the bus, who were pretty much the fathers, uncles and grandfathers of kids in my class at the local school I’d left behind.
Still, it didn’t take very long for me to see what was behind the gelled, posh-sounding façade.
Other than “behooves,” The Barber’s favorite word was “perfidy,” which he used to describe actions of people who he didn’t like. I kept a pocket dictionary in my backpack, and the first time I heard him say “perfidy,” I asked my mom what it meant. She made me look it up – the definition is “deliberate treachery” – and then we laughed about his malapropism. Everyone else on the bus thought he was really smart.
Not long after I started ninth grade, The Barber asked me why I commuted so far and studied so hard on the bus each day. He pointed out that there were three Jewish high schools in the area (all SY), and suggested I enroll at the all-girls’ school his daughter attended, where I knew dance and challah-baking were part of the curriculum.
“I go to the only Orthodox Jewish school on Time magazine’s list of top high schools in America,” I said, with lots of school spirit. “I want to get a good education and go to an Ivy League college.”
My mother, sitting next to me as always, beamed. She went to Ramaz, too, and then Barnard.
“I don’t believe in college. Certainly not for girls. I learned from life,” The Barber said.
“Would you go to a doctor who didn’t go to college?” my mother shot back.
As The Barber continued in his duties as King of the Bus, my mother and I exchanged a look.
“Ignore him,” she told me, and I stuck my nose back in my American history textbook, which was propped up against the table that folded out of the seat in front of me.
Suddenly, I understood that, just because he had an accent and knew Vidal Sassoon, The Barber wasn’t so different than the other men on the bus. Unlike my mom and me, the Barber was accepted by SYs because, even though he couldn’t hide all of his idiosyncrasies, he did what I couldn’t: try to act like them.
After all, The Barber’s wife didn’t work. Almost none of the bus riders’ wives worked. While my mom commuted to her office in New York every day, where she advised rich people on charitable tax planning, his wife stayed at home. His daughter went to a school that prepared her to be a good wife, and while I didn’t know her, I imagined she was like the girls in my eighth-grade class who had a set, weekly manicure appointment, much like other kids had gymnastics practice or drama club. I had only gotten two manicures in my life: one for my aunt’s wedding, where I was a flower girl, and one for my bat mitzvah.
The bus gave me a daily, concentrated taste of SY culture and every time I stepped off the magical giant purple carpet in front of Grand Central Station, where I took a subway to the Upper East Side, I was reminded of where I was going and what I left behind. The barber and his ilk went off to work, and I went to school with young men and women who were equally encouraged to aim high and get ahead. Every morning I left Deal, and I didn’t look back – until it was time to go home for the night, of course.
Lahav Harkov Levine is the Knesset reporter for “The Jerusalem Post” and is often invited to lecture on Israeli government and politics. She has published articles in “The Jewish Week” and the Hebrew-language newspaper “Makor Rishon,” as well as Jewish culture website “Jewcy.” Lahav has a degree in Political Science and Communications from Bar-Ilan University, where she is currently pursuing a Master’s degree in Creative Nonfiction Writing, and lives near Tel Aviv with her husband.