See this, my taxi driver said, an old friend gave it to me. I’d only been in the cab a minute so I had to adjust my focus to his hand holding up a very small book. I slid my shopping bags over, rolled up the window from the winter rain and answered I’d seen them swinging from a lot of rearview mirrors, a miniature Book of Psalms, like a horseshoe, a sort of good luck charm. Yes, Tehillim, he said. I got it from a friend. But I don’t like it swinging in front of me, bothers me while I drive so I keep it in my pocket. Always. I nodded to show him I was listening though my mind was intent on what I was making for dinner. He looked up at the rearview mirror. You’re not listening to me today so I won’t say anymore. I apologized in a stream of words. It took a couple of traffic stops and he came back to his story. You won’t believe where this friend is now. He looked up and I lifted my hands in mock surrender. Where? I asked like the puppet telling the puppeteer alright go ahead and pull my strings. Baghdad. Baghdad, Iraq, he emphasized the country in case I didn’t know where that city was. He’s there now? I asked not able to keep the astonishment out of my voice. Do you want to hear the story? In all the years I know you have I ever said “no”?
Eli was what’s called a neshama, a good soul, a guy who’d give anyone at the taxi station a loan, take their shift, whatever, you know even the shirt off his back. And he was the last person in the world that you’d think could be like that. Like what? Like the shirt off his back for anyone. Not a single one of us understood it. Why was that? A life even an evil person didn’t deserve. So horrible. But a real neshama. I’m missing something here, I said. You with all your university never meet people like him. Excuse me, I know many different people. Yes, yes, that’s what you say but Eli had a life that was black. Black I’m telling you – his wife was sick with cancer and he took care of her for years until the day she died. He had one son, his only child, Danny, and he was killed by a suicide bomber who blew up a bus in Haifa. He had nothing and still he was a neshama. But he must have had some family, I insisted because I know my taxi driver goes for the extremes: North Pole, South Pole, angels, monsters, nothing in between. No one, he declared in a voice almost operatic. Not a single person. I bet you’re listening now. He looked in the rearview. I nodded. Eli was born in Baghdad and the day before the family was set to flee his parents were caught selling their furniture in the market and arrested. Gone after that. Vanished. Never heard of. The cantor from their Baghdad synagogue brought Eli to Israel, he was sent to a kibbutz, an orphan. Years later he heard an Arab neighbor had hidden his twin brother. Why didn’t the two brothers leave together? You’d think so, wouldn’t you? But his twin brother had polio, in a wheelchair, no chance. The troubles of Job, I murmured, so how did you get his Tehillim? One morning three years ago I come to the station and the boss says Eli left something for you. I open an envelope and sticking out of the Tehillim a slip of paper – “I need my past.”
You know me I’m a person who needs answers, so I call him. And he told you why he left it for you? No. Gone, his apartment sold. New people answered the phone. He disappeared. Disappeared? In a country as small as Israel, no one disappears. You’re half-right. No one goes into thin air unless they go where they can’t be followed. Like? Like, my friend, Baghdad, Baghdad, Iraq. How would an Israeli get into Iraq? I don’t know but I know that after he buried his wife and the year of mourning was over for his son, there wasn’t a day he didn’t say he was going back to find his brother. He swore it. It’s war over there, bombs every day, I got even more statistical – and he’s Jewish, and he’s Israeli. That’s a death sentence. You’re young, you don’t know what survival is, one hundred percent he’s there. And if you’re right?
I am one hundred and TEN percent right. I feel he’s alive every time I touch his Tehillim. You read the psalms? He shook his head. I recite my own words. What do you say? Eli, I pray you’re not driving a taxi.