“Happy birthday! “ Yosef’s family cried as soon as he walked in the door.
Yosef smiled, feeling ten feet tall. He eyed the table set with his favorite dinner. “I got the best birthday present ever!” the seventeen-year-old exclaimed. “I passed the driver’s test!”
“On your first try?” one of his sisters shrieked.
“That’s wonderful,” his mother gushed.
“We’re proud of you,” his father said seriously.
“What’s the big deal?” his grandfather growled. “I got my license on my first try and I was only sixteen.”
Levi, Yosef’s father, did not even try to explain to his father how complicated the Israeli system was for new drivers. Instead he asked a quizzical question.
“Do you want to tell the kids how old you were when you started driving, Dad?”
“Gramps was already operating the neighbor’s tractor before he was fourteen. Then came the truck. And then the license. But,” Levi looked at his children with mock sternness, “that’s not going to work here.”
Nothing works here,” Gramps growled.
“Come let’s sit down for dinner,” Levi’s mother suggested smoothly and in the clamor of seven people fitting around the table Gramps’ sour remark went unnoticed.
The second one did not, though. He took a generous portion of meatballs and also the vegetables but passed the boiled potatoes on with a face.
“I can’t eat potatoes without butter.”
“Dad,” Levi answered patiently. “They have margarine on them.”
“How someone who grew up on a dairy farm could even consider eating margarine is beyond me.” Gramps shook his head.
Levi sighed. Beit El, Israel was a long way from the farm he had grown up on outside Leavenworth, Kansas. He had always known that his grandmother was Jewish but it had never had much of an impact on his life until the summer he had been working at a gas station out on the highway. Two boys with beanies on their heads and fringes hanging out of their shirts stopped to fill up their car. Although they spoke English it was heavily accented and to each other they spoke a foreign language.
“Where are you from?” Levi, then Lewis, had asked.
“That’s cool.” The only foreigners Lewis knew were the Mexican family a few miles down the road. “You know,” he paused as he washed their windshield. “My grandmother was Jewish.”
“Really?” the taller boy asked. “Your mother’s mother or your father’s?”
“Well, buddy,” the second boy said, “that means you’re Jewish, too.”
“Really?” Lewis had asked wide-eyed.
“Really. Here’s my number, if you ever come to Israel look me up.”
Lewis had taken the number, stuffed it in his pocket, and forgot about it. And then, the following month the world was stunned by the daring Israeli rescue in Entebbe. Lewis was fascinated and, remembering that those boys told him he was Jewish, did his winter term paper on the IDF. The next year Egypt and Israel signed a peace pact. Lewis’s senior project was on Menachem Begin.
He was accepted at the University of Colorado and during his first year wandered into the Jewish Student Union. Before long he had stopped eating pork and by the time he finished his sophomore year he was keeping Shabbat. He worked two years after graduating and saved enough money to take off for a Baal T’shuva Yeshiva in Jerusalem. Several years later he met his wife and they joined a group of young couples making their homes in Samaria. Throughout it all his parents had been accepting, if not supportive.
After his wife’s death a year earlier, Levi’s father, who had always been an easy going, cheerful man, became somewhat cantankerous. His weekly phone calls became a litany of complaints. He said he was no longer strong enough to make his yearly visits to his only child and grandchildren. Instead, Levi went to him and arrived to find his father in the hospital. While Levi was somewhere over the Atlantic, his father had suffered a massive stroke. A neighbor had found him and called an ambulance. The doctor surmised that there had been several minor, undetected strokes earlier and that was the reason for the old man’s changing personality. He could not, the doctor was adamant, go back to living by himself. Either he could live in Israel with his son or check into an old age home. Gramps chose the first choice and had done nothing but complain about his decision for the last four months.
Yosef’s younger sisters were able to let Gramps’ surliness roll off their shoulders. Remembering the upbeat grandfather who used to visit they still came to him for ice cream money, homework help in English and math, and a game partner when they were bored. Yosef, as the oldest, was not so forgiving.
He hated the way his grandfather called him Joe. He hated the way Gramps spoke English loudly to Israelis as if the louder he spoke the easier it would be for them to understand. And he hated the way Gramps was always finding fault with him. Once he got his license, though, Gramps had something he needed.
Yosef received his license on the condition that he would have a licensed driver with him whenever he drove for the first three months. His mother did not have a license and his father worked long hours. Gramps, however, had a current license and time on his hands. He escorted Yosef on his forays to the grocery store, gas station, and pizza take-out criticizing almost every move Yosef made. After a month Yosef had had enough. If he could not find an older friend to go with him he would just wait until the three months were over. No more driving with Gramps!
That would have been fine except Gramps had an important doctor’s appointment in Jerusalem and everyone was counting on Yosef to take him there. Yosef agreed reluctantly. It wasn’t only that he had to have his grandfather carping at him. He was not all that comfortable with driving in Jerusalem. He had done his lessons and testing in Ariel, a small city without heavy traffic and aggressive drivers.
All went smoothly on the way to the appointment and the doctor was pleased with Gramps’ progress. On the way home, however, it began drizzling. Yosef was nervous. Concentrating on his steering, he did not pay attention to the traffic signal in front of him and went right through the red light.
“Joe!” Gramps let out a string of expletives. “What do you think you’re doing? Wasn’t that was a red light!”
“Uh,” Yosef stammered. “They don’t have those in Ariel.”
As Gramps muttered under his breath a policeman flashed his lights. Feeling about ten inches tall Yosef pulled over to the side of the street.
“Why are you stopping?” Gramps demanded. He had his answer as Yosef rolled down his window and the policeman’s head appeared.
“Why are you stopping my grandson?” Gramps demanded loudly.
There was no need for him to shout, however. The policeman answered in excellent English. “Sir, your grandson ran a red light.”
“He did no such thing!” Gramps retorted.
“Sir,” the policeman was polite. “I saw it with my own eyes.”
“Well, I saw with my own eyes the light was green.”
“I’m sorry it was red.”
“Did you get it on camera?” Gramps snapped.
The policeman shook his head.
“Well, now,” Gramps smiled sarcastically. “It’s your word against mine, isn’t it?”
Yosef thought any traffic court would accept the word of an Israeli policeman over a grumpy old man who could not speak the language, but apparently the policeman was not so sure. Perhaps he had lost in court before. Or maybe he just wanted to respect the elderly. Whatever the reason he gave Yosef a strong warning to drive carefully and did not write out a ticket.
“Gee, Gramps,” Yosef said as they watched the policeman get back into his patrol car. “Why did you do that?”
“No one is going to give my grandson a ticket, if I can help it,” the old man declared. “And I didn’t lie. The light turned red after you entered the intersection.”
“Thank you,” Yosef said sincerely.
“You’re welcome, Yosef.”
The two of them smiled at each other.