One of the most important lessons we are taught as children is to "judge everyone favorably". We are supposed to remember constantly that we don't know the whole story, that we have no right to pass judgments on anyone else. We say this as we cross the street to avoid the secular teenagers, as we stare at the ultra-Orthodox girls who pass us on the street, as we recognize and pity that girl who used to be religious but isn't anymore. We think we know them, we create stories of what their lives must be like, and all the while we are unbearably self-conscious of what they might be thinking of us.
I was recently in a taxi in Paris, traveling from one airport to another. My driver was an Israeli guy, about 30 years old. He had tattoos up his arm, a piercing in his ear, and hair gelled so spiky it looked like it could cut something. He looked very intimidating, and it took a while for me to feel comfortable talking to him. But once we started, we spoke the whole way, two strangers stuck in an island of standstill traffic.
He wanted to know how old I was, and asked if I'd ever planned to travel the world.
"Probably not", I said. "All I've ever wanted to see was Israel, and now I live there."
He laughed. "Zionism," he said. "Cute."
I asked him why he left Israel for Paris. He thought about it for a while. A girlfriend had brought him here, and then he'd opened a business.
"When was the last time you were home?" I asked.
"My father died a month ago", he said. "I went back for shiva."
We talked a bit about his father and the girlfriend who had long since disappeared, and then the conversation shifted. I took an apple out of my backpack and made a bracha.
"So you are religious?" he asked me.
"Yes", I said.
He smiled. "You might not believe this, but I was once religious too. Shabbat, Yom Tov, Kashrut, I did everything. I wore a Kippah srugah, went to Bnei Akiva every Friday night. I even dated my rabbi's daughter."
I tried to imagine this very obviously secular man as a religious teenage boy. I couldn't.
"What happened?", I asked.
He sighed. "You know. Life happens. I wanted to have fun and get away from all the rules. I still believe in the One above, though. I grew up believing and I always will. If you don't believe, you have nothing."
He paused and looked out the window. "My father learned with me every night when I was a child. Now he's gone, and I've started learning again. Not much, but it's something."
I wasn't sure what to say.
"My Abba was always waiting for me to come home, to be religious again. But it wasn't for me."
"Do you ever miss it?" I asked.
He thought about it for a minute. "Sometimes," he said. "My sisters are married with children now and I hear them sing the songs that I used to know. It makes me remember the life I used to live. But maybe that's just part of being an adult."
Then he raised his arm, the one with the tattoo. "You see this?" he asked me. "I got this tattoo on my left arm, just in case I wanted to put on tefillin again one day. Just in case."
Then he laughed. "Enough of this religious talk, " he said. "What do you think about Bibi?"
The conversation quickly turned to a political debate, but I couldn't get those words out of my head. "Just in case I wanted to put on tefillin again."
The whole way home I thought about what he had said. I thought about his father, about his family, and I had a hundred more questions I wish I had asked him.
But what stuck with me the most was the knowledge that if I hadn't had that conversation with him, if I had just seen him on the street, I would never have guessed that he had a story. That he had a strong belief in G-d. That behind the tattoo was a man who had left himself a door back home.
"Just in case…"
Every person is made up of defining moments. The moment you get a tattoo on your left arm, instead of your right. The moment you don't throw out the siddur you never use, but leave it on your bookshelf. The moment you see someone you don't usually talk to, and throw them a smile.
I decided to work harder on myself, not to judge others. To constantly remember that every person has a back-story, has a journey, and I might never hear about it. That those defining moments are not written on foreheads or Facebook statuses, and they must be learned about through effort and time.
I wonder if he'll ever put on tefillin again. I wonder if he's happy. I wonder if he knows that because of that conversation, I will do my best to never assume I understand someone before taking the time to listen.