When I was a child, my mother insisted that I always give my seat up to someone older on the bus or subway. She would add that this was the way that boys and girls in Israel behaved.
A few years ago, I was traveling on a bus in Peru. The bus stopped to pick up a group of women, waiting on the side of the road at the Condor Pass, where, at 13,000 feet, one can see the protected condors of Peru. (The condor, the world’s largest flying bird, with a wingspan of over 10 feet, has allegedly been observed carrying off sheep and calves.)
Having boarded the crowded bus, the women, who had spent the day selling trinkets, were forced to stand in the aisle holding enormous sacks. I offered my seat to an older woman, and thus found myself standing, surrounded by short women dressed in traditional Peruvian clothes, including colorful bonnets, elaborate scarves, and flowing skirts. They were laughing and talking loudly in Quecha, their native language. Finding the scene comical, I gave my camera to a fellow passenger to take a photo.
Eventually the bus stopped and the women got off. As they were doing so, the woman to whom I gave up my seat loudly thanked me so that everyone on the bus could hear. She then sternly turned to the other passengers and admonished them for not giving up their seats. The other women joined in and, for a few tense moments, there was a lot of yelling and pointing fingers, which abruptly turned to hysterical laughter.
Asking someone to translate, I was told that the women said that I was the only “real” man on the bus. To make this point clear, they mentioned a specific part of the male anatomy that, in their estimation, I alone possessed and that the other men on the bus, evidently, were missing. They left out no detail in their descriptions and my translator assured me that I should be very flattered.
Humored by this experience, I imagined including it as an anecdote to the more significant events of the trip, including hiking to Machu Picchu, descending into the Colca Canyon and even visiting the Chabad Center in Cusco, which hosts 600 people for its Passover Seder (it is the second largest Seder in the world; the largest is for 2,000 people in Kathmandu, Nepal!) In fact, I am not even certain I would have remembered this bus encounter except for what happened next.
Upon returning home I went to get a haircut and showed the photos from my trip to Sonaly, the woman who washes hair at the salon. Sonaly, a Peruvian immigrant, gave me her mother’s address before my trip in case of an emergency. Without looking at the address, I put the note in my wallet.
Suddenly, Sonaly screamed and starting jumping up and down. She explained that the woman in one of the photographs — in fact, the same woman to whom I gave up my seat — was her mother! I initially found this coincidence too hard to believe. However, opening my wallet and looking at her mother’s address, it was, sure enough, in a village near the Condor Pass. Sonaly then opened her pocketbook and showed me a photo of her mother; there could be no doubt that this was the same person.
As much as I enjoyed my trip to Peru, my greatest joy was seeing Sonaly’s reaction when she saw the photograph of her mother sitting on the bus with me standing next to her. It was even more meaningful because this happened the day after an earthquake had hit Peru and Sonaly was concerned about her family and friends.
Perhaps my mother exaggerated when she told me that the boys and girls in Israel always give up their seats for older people. Nevertheless, she taught me well the importance of “rising before the aged” (Leviticus 19:22). It is mitzvah I will continue to perform, at least until such time as I become the oldest person on the bus or subway!
This content is an excerpt from an article published in Washington Jewish Week in 2009 and is published here with the author's permission.
By Paul J. Blank