We know the rule: picking up hitchhikers is bad. It’s been drilled into our heads from a young age, along with other stranger-danger situations and how to avoid them. Parents and educators teach children to be wary of strangers, and try to impart a survival savvy that they hope will never be needed. And in addition to the parental and school warnings are the many movies and TV shows that reinforce these concepts. We know that when a scene features a naïve driver picking up a hitchhiker, it will not end well for someone. Needless to say, we’ve been warned.
So then, what possessed me to pull over for a hitchhiker on my way to work?
I rolled my window down, and there she was: a woman with salt and pepper colored hair, a brown cardigan, and orthopedic shoes. She was at least 75 years old, and seemed to be in distress. She explained that she’d missed her bus, and was going to be late for an important doctor’s appointment. She told me the address of her doctor, which was coincidentally near my office, and she asked for a ride. What else could I do? I told her to get in.
She sat in the front seat, one gnarled hand clutching her purse, and the other gripping the door handle. There was an uncomfortable silence, and I could feel her piercing stare on me as I drove. After several blocks, she thought better of her predicament, and wondered aloud if she should go back to the bus stop. And then it hit me. She was scared of me! I didn’t think I looked particularly threatening or sinister in my business suit, but in reality, I was a stranger to her. She’d acted impulsively (as had I), and she realized the potentially dangerous situation she’d put herself in. Wanting to put her at ease, I slowed my car and told her she could get out, or I would bring her back to the bus stop. She looked at her watch, back at me, and asked me to keep driving.
I hoped my husband wouldn’t call me during the ride, because I didn’t know how I’d explain that I’d picked up a hitchhiker. I was uneasy with my own actions, and was second-guessing my hasty choice of inviting her into my car. Since we had at least another 20 minutes of driving, I thought I’d ease the palpable tension with some small talk. But after we covered the weather and local news, I was out of conversation. More awkward silence ensued. And then she surprised me.
“Are you Jewish?” she asked.
“Um, yes. Are you?”
I saw her visibly relax in her seat, and loosen the death grip on her pocketbook. The whole vibe in the car changed. What was it about knowing that I was Jewish that instantly eased her discomfort?
I think there was an implied trust, and I know I’ve felt that before. Knowing that a doctor, lawyer, or even the parent of my child’s friends is Jewish gives me a sense of comfort and compatibility. While some might label this ethnocentrism, I think that would be a misnomer. For me, it’s not about comparing Jews to other ethnicities, but rather a cultural camaraderie among Jews. We’re from the same tribe. We celebrate the same holidays and share a long history. We’re simpatico.
And yet, I also know that this is a false sense of security. Just because a person is Jewish doesn’t mean that they are a good person, or that I will like them, or that they will like me. I recall a recent medical appointment with a new doctor who had a typical Jewish last name. My nerves were somewhat calmed by our perceived “Jewish” connection, which I intuitively thought would make my experience less uncomfortable. In reality, I was taken aback when the doctor’s cold hands matched his demeanor and approach. But truth be told, knowing someone is Jewish still makes me feel better. And it obviously calmed the woman in my front seat.
I glanced over at my passenger. She must have been someone’s grandma, a sweet old lady. What she did was dangerous and reckless. I imagined that her family would have been horrified that she was hitchhiking. My family would equally have been disturbed to learn I’d picked up a hitchhiker. But if I hadn’t stopped for her, someone who had nefarious intensions might have. Her anxiety about missing her doctor’s appointment led her to take a huge risk. I wondered if she’d done this before, and I was worried for her. My own behavior was also worth questioning, because despite the fact that she was a harmless old lady, she was nonetheless a hitchhiker. I’d behaved quite irresponsibly on behalf of a total stranger, and that was unlike my usual responsible, rule-following self.
As I pulled into the parking lot of the doctor’s office, my hitchhiker looked at me gratefully, and thanked me. I smiled, happy to have started my day by performing a mitzvah, and ultimately glad I’d given her a ride. Still, I swore to myself that I would never pick up another hitchhiker. And I made her promise she’d take a cab home.