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One of the most storied professions in Jewish lore is that of the baal agalah - literally, the owner of the wagon. Until the advent of the automobile and its attendant spin-offs  - buses, motorcycles, all-terrain vehicles, etc. - a horse or donkey and wagon was the staple method of ground transportation. The other alternative was to walk, a method of transportation used by most of humanity most of the time. Throughout the Talmud we find references for long journeys on foot undertaken by the rabbis of the time. Rabi Yochanan, even at a rather advanced age walked from Tzipori to Tiberias with his disciples accompanying him, no mean feat for any present-day hiker. But in Eastern Europe, the heartland of Ashkenazic Jewry for centuries, the baal agalah reigned supreme as the provider of ground transportation. As such, he eventually entered Jewish life as a storied, almost mythical character. At times, he was portrayed as the simple, intrinsically pious and holy Jew, who discussed weighty theological questions with God, his passengers and sometimes with his horse. In other forms, he was an intrinsically wise man whose advice and counsel were to be sought and followed. In other portrayals, the baal agalah was depicted as the ultimate boor and ignoramus, uncouth and ill mannered, almost without any redeeming social values except for the necessity of using his horse and wagon. These different portrayals were undoubtedly all true, depending upon which baal agalah one met up with. People remain who they are no matter how they earn their livelihood. But the baal agalah remained a popular folk character in all of his forms and guises.

The day of the baal agalah has departed from us as has Eastern European Jewish life and Jewry. While Eastern European Jewry has yet to find its replacement either quantitavely or qualitavely, the baal agalah has once again reemerged in the form of our beloved taxi drivers. And just as with their predecessors, the horse and wagon drivers, the taxi drivers come in all different sorts and shapes, moods and characteristics. Some are wise and pious, some are boors, some are simple and others are complex. But they are rarely boring. One hears great political wisdom and analysis from them. Theology and the nature and future of Judaism are subjects that almost always eventually arise from their conversations. The opinions expressed on any and all subjects are almost as freewheeling as the way they drive their cars. It is hard work driving twelve to fourteen hours a day on the streets of Israel and therefore like the baal agalah before them, they demand attention and consideration. Whatever the destination, a taxi ride there is almost always an interesting experience. If one is fortunate enough to find the "right" (no political pun is intended here) taxi driver, it can also be an enlightening and educational one as well.

I am certain that everyone has their own favorite taxicab drivers' stories. Here are two mine. When my wife and I visited Israel in the late 1960's we took a taxicab from the airport - ah, the old, old, Ben Gurion Airport, what nostalgia! - to Jerusalem. It was a rickety DeSoto automobile that must have been twenty years old. Not surprisingly, the car blew a tire on the ascent to Jerusalem. The driver and I unloaded all of our luggage, jacked up the car and he changed the tire while I supervised this delicate operation. As I commiserated with him, he turned to me and said: "What do you think, it is easy to go up to Jerusalem?" That comment, representing the Jewish wisdom of the ages on this subject, helped put our then-tourist-trip to Israel into the proper perspective of appreciation, wonder and thankfulness. Going up to Jerusalem has never been easy, nor was it ever meant to be. My second story concerns a cab that I was in that was stopped for a minor traffic violation (turning left from the right-hand lane) by a policeman outside of a synagogue. As the cabdriver and the policeman were debating the finer points of traffic law, someone ran out of the synagogue and stated that they needed three more people for the minyan immediately. Dutifully, the three of us trooped in to the synagogue for the Mincha prayer service. After it concluded the cabdriver said to the policeman: "Now that the Lord has forgiven my sins through my prayer, you certainly can do so as well." He got off with a warning. Such is the life of our beloved taxi drivers who perform such a necessary public service for all of us.

Shabat shalom.
Berel Wein

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