It was the first of the intermediate days of Passover 2010, and my two older sons decided to wake up really early – around 5 a.m. – and head out with me by car in the expectation of getting in a full day seeing the country around Phoenix, Arizona, specifically the Sedona and Grand Canyon areas.
We were staying at a hotel in the area and were eager to see the renowned natural landmarks. We decided on the way that we would fill up with gas but passed several exits without seeing any obvious signs of a fill-up location. Finally we came across an exit that had what I can only describe as an old-fashioned convenience store featuring a station with pumps that were already antiquated when I was growing up in the 1970s.
It was around 6:30 a.m. and still dark, and I could see a light through the dirty front window of the convenience store. We waited in the car for someone to come out and fill us up, but no one came. Not wanting to honk at that early hour, I got out of the car, leaving my two big boys to enjoy the quiet of the cool morning.
As I approached the store, I noticed some signs advertising novelty items, knives and guns. I pushed open the door – and felt as though I had traveled back in time or been transported into an episode of “The Twilight Zone.”
Standing behind a table facing the front door was the most vicious-looking person I had ever seen in close quarters. He was stout and strong. Both his exposed arms were covered with tattoos. He had rings on all his fingers, or at least it seemed that way, and was wearing a black leather vest. He didn’t smile, but just stared straight at me. Suddenly, I was frightened. It occurred to me that perhaps I should have worn a hat on this outing rather than my yarmulke.
Nevertheless, taking my chances, I smiled, said good morning, and asked if I could fill up with gas. He responded cordially that I could. I had brought my credit card into the store with me, but realized it might not be a good idea to give it to this person. I asked if I could pay with cash. I told him I had some in the car. I figured that by returning to the car I could catch my breath or even escape. No problem, he said.
Then he hesitated for a moment and asked, “Are you Jewish?”
I was suddenly grateful that I had left the keys inside the car. My eldest son, if need be, could drive away quickly if he heard gunshots or screaming coming from the store.
I paused before responding to the question, deliberating the potential consequences of my answer. But I figured it was ridiculous to be caught in an obvious lie – I was wearing a yarmulke, after all – even if I felt my life could well be in danger. I inhaled, eyed him cautiously while keeping the exit in view, and responded, “Yes, I am.”
He reached into his shirt and started to pull something out. At that point I was thinking it was time to say Shema. He then revealed a thick necklace chain and said with a big smile “Ah, family!”
I stared at him blankly. He lifted up the item dangling from the chain for me to see more clearly. It was a Star of David. I began to understand. I was incredibly relieved, but also confused. This did not add up for me, and I decided to see if he was being honest. “Wow,” I said. “What’s your Hebrew name?”
He paused for a couple of seconds before saying “Yehuda Bob.”
“What?” I asked. He repeated his name.
“Are you sure?” I asked. “Perhaps it is Yehuda Bar, or Yehuda something else?”
He was emphatic. It was Yehuda Bob.
He then made a fist and called me over to see it – just when I thought I’d escaped a scary fate. I glanced at his fists and saw Hebrew letters tattooed onto his hands and arms. I then took a closer look at what was permanently inked on his skin.
I said to him: “Yehuda Bob, do you know what is written on your hands?” He responded in a clear voice, “I can’t read it, but I know what it says: ‘My God beats your God.’ ”
He showed me that both his fists had the identical phrase in perfectly correct Hebrew script; one hand had the text written facing in (toward him) and the other hand had the text facing out (presumably so that his victim would be able to read it more easily). His translation was rough but nonetheless correct. I was stunned. There was no doubt. He was not only a Jew but an incredibly proud one.
I asked him if I could bring in my sons to meet him. With pleasure, he said. When they came into the store they were noticeably shocked as I began to introduce them. Yehuda Bob smiled and shook both their hands warmly and enthusiastically.
We spoke about our planned trip to Sedona and the Grand Canyon and told him we were visiting from Israel. He became animated, telling us his father had visited Israel and that he still had pictures from the trip. He said he couldn’t understand why we just don’t kick the Arabs’ behinds (he used different language). He said that anyone who dared throw anything on his property would be putting his life at risk. So if Israel has missiles landing in its backyard, why doesn’t the army get real?
He proceeded to show us a large gun strapped to his shoulder and other legal weapons he carried. I asked him if the guns were really needed, and he explained how they were. Many people try to steal from him, he said, and the station was at least a ten-minute drive from the nearest police station. He had no choice but to protect the property, which he managed for the store’s owner.
He also told us the story of how his father moved to this secluded part of Arizona and then passed away soon after Yehuda Bob came to visit him from the Boston area. It was then that Yehuda Bob decided to make the place his home.
There were countless weapons displayed for sale all over the store. My 18-year-old, Ariel, was interested in a particular knife. Yehuda Bob was happy to oblige and took it from the glass case to show him. I felt my heart rate escalate. I responded to Ariel’s enthusiasm with an offer to buy him something similar in Israel (even though he did not ask for one upon our return home, I did give him an impressive Swiss Army knife I had received many years ago).
I asked Yehuda Bob for any helpful advice regarding knives. He responded: “Never get into a knife fight with someone who has a gun.”
Before we parted, I asked if he would pose for a photograph with us. He readily agreed. He put his arms around my sons while I took a photo, and one of the boys took a photo of me with Yehuda Bob. We hugged as we were leaving and both of us became teary-eyed. I showed him a 20 NIS note (equivalent at that time to around $5) I had in my pocket, just to share with him something from Israel. He took it and stared at it. It seemed that touching something from Israel really moved him. I told him to keep it as a memento of Israel and of our meeting, and said I hoped we would meet again one day. He was incredibly appreciative.
My sons and I got into the car and pulled away in silence. We realized we had experienced something powerful – a moment of beauty and humanity, of intense connection and the spark of family – under the most unexpected of circumstances.
It was a life lesson up close and personal: how one should never judge a person based on appearance. Yehuda Bob looked terrifying but was truly a gentle and kind soul.
We also saw how Jews can be found everywhere, and that the most unlikely people take deep pride and feel great honor in being Jewish. We, too, took deep pride and felt great honor – in counting Yehuda Bob as one of us.
(This was written in memory of my father, Dr. Ivan Mauer, z”l, who excelled at treating people with great care and regard, irrespective of outer appearance, social standing or health.)
Tzvi Mauer is founder of Urim Publications, a Jerusalem-based publishing house specializing in high caliber books of Jewish interest.
For the original posting in the Jewish Press, please click here.