Purim in a New York Taxi
Purim is a special time for our family. We were all born in the Purim season, celebrated our Bar and Bat Mitzvahs then, and began courtships with our partners. Purim is at the tip of spring, of birth, renewal, and redemption.
We celebrate Purim differently, in the quiet intimacy of our family circle. My brother Daniel doesn’t hear and our father bought him a beautiful megillah so he could read it to himself. I volunteer to attend his meticulous, tuneless reading, thrilled not to have to fight my way through the noise and chaos in shul. In reading the megillah together, my brother and I share a special bond of experience, family history played out against the rich backdrop of our people’s history.
I try not to work on Purim, but one year I was embroiled in litigation, and the courts do not wait. I had to be at our Manhattan offices by 9:00 on Purim morning; we decided my brother would read the megillah in a limousine on the road between our home in Brooklyn and my office in Manhattan.
I dressed for work, davened, and watched anxiously for Daniel to return from morning services. He arrived, we jumped into the limo, I gave the destination to the driver, and Daniel unfurled the scroll and began the story of Esther.
Usually I get dizzy if I read in cars, but not that day. Holding the megillah high in my hands, I had thought only for black ink upon white parchment. We meandered around the narrow streets of Sheepshead Bay through Ahasuerus’s party, and as he called for his wife Vashti to dance before him, we spun into Ocean Parkway, the jugular of Flatbush, Babylon of the Diaspora. The road was clear, and we sailed through the execution of Vashti, the search for her successor, and Esther’s coronation. Mordecai’s denunciation of the murderous stewards was duly recorded in the king’s archives at a red light.
Ocean Parkway merged with the Belt Parkway when Haman appeared, grinding his teeth over Mordecai’s refusal to bow to him. Traffic is always heavy at this point because many roads join together, and perennial construction puts several lanes out of use. We were grateful for the time. Haman cooked up his evil plot, chose the day to annihilate the Jews, and made his case to the king. We moved at a snail’s pace, foul exhaust from the juggernaut truck in front of us blackening the page before us. Mordecai tore his clothes and Esther ordered her people to fast three days.
At the end of the Belt Parkway there was a choice: we could to get into Manhattan either on the bridge or through the tunnel. The bridge is free but takes forever; the tunnel is fast and smooth and quiet and dark, with a hefty toll. The driver turned round and asked us, and Daniel and I looked at each other. Would we make it in time to work if we took the bridge? Would Daniel be able to continue the reading in the dark of the tunnel? We handed the driver the tunnel fee and turned back to Esther.
The queen weighed her options and was convinced that Haman’s decree of death for the Jews would condemn her, too. She decided that approaching Ahasuerus unasked would be less dangerous than sitting still. The tunnel was lit with dim orange bulbs that strobed on and off as we sped though. Daniel kept his face close to the parchment and continued; we were feasting at Esther’s first party. By the time we reached daylight, Haman had built the gallows for Mordecai and the king was disturbed in his sleep.
Out of the tunnel on the Manhattan side, we made a parabolic turn toward the West Side Highway. The western route is clogged with traffic lights but has a majestic view over to New Jersey, and there is a park all along the waterfront. As we stopped and started along the highway, the king was reminded of Mordecai’s loyalty to him in the matter of the treasonous stewards. Dressed in royal robes, Mordecai was led through the streets of the capital by the man who had authored the death warrant against him and his people. Haman’s wife saw he was doomed. Our car passed the museum-battleship Intrepid, anchored at the pier on 46th Street.
My office was between 45th and 46th Streets on Sixth Avenue. To get there from the West Side Highway, we had to drive through Hell’s Kitchen, which, despite the name, is filled with elegant restaurants and catchy awnings. The driving is at walking pace because all the lights are against you when you travel from east to west across the city, but once we turned into 46th Street my stomach unknotted. We were on the final stretch.
Passing the brunching Manhattanites in the cafés, we launched into Esther’s second party, with the risky revelation she made to Ahasuerus of the decree against the Jews and her inclusion in it. The king was enflamed, and Haman and his brood were hanged. We reached the intersection with Times Square. The assault on the senses is extreme, with flashing lights, gigantic images of the naked human form, steam floating from a hot cocoa ad, entire movies running for the driver’s entertainment. We sped through the multimedia crossing and into the block that housed my office. We were almost done.
Esther and Mordecai reversed Haman’s decree, and the Jews were given the go-ahead to murder their murderous neighbors. A feast was declared for all generations, friends gave gifts to friends, and Mordecai wrote the story we held in our hands. Our driver found a spot outside my building as we read the brief last chapter. The king levied a tax on the land-dwellers and island-dwellers, and Mordecai became the king’s prime minister, spokesman for the peace of his people.
We finished; I rewound the scroll back to the days of Vashti, ready for next year. Our driver turned and grasped my brother’s hands between his.
“Purim sameah!” he said. “I am Jewish also, from Persia. We sing a different megillah tune. Thank you so much, I am so happy you sang it for me too.”
I stepped out of the car, smoothed my skirt, and readjusted my thoughts, ready for business.
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