Poor Jews

Morry Barak is about to celebrate the first anniversary of his new business, Masada Car Service of Chicago. He’s the sole proprietor. He’s also the dispatcher and sole driver. Masada is basically a cell phone, a Lincoln Town Car and Morry.

He’s not complaining. At 43, he’s been through a half-dozen careers: real estate, retail, singing telegrams, plus a stint on an Israeli kibbutz (where he changed his name from Berman). Last year, after four years driving cabs around his native Chicago, he decided he’d schmoozed enough doormen and concierges to guarantee a clientele, and he went solo.

It’s hard, though. “What I do is unhealthy,” Barak says. “I’ve known guys who died in their cars at 59 or 60, after sitting for 40 years, getting bounced around and yelled at, eating horrible foods. It’s not the best business to grow old in.”

Nor the best field to be Jewish in. “Let’s face it, our religion is an extremely expensive religion to participate in,” Barak says. He and his Israeli-born wife, who sells shoes at Nordstrom, gross nearly $60,000 a year between them. Their four-year-old attends a JCC nursery school — a necessity with two working parents — and at $7,000, even with a discount, “that pretty much soaks up all my Jewish dollars.” Everything else is homemade. “My older son trained for his Bar Mitzvah with the Yemenite guy who runs the kosher grocery down the block.”

What’s hardest about being a Jewish cabdriver isn’t money, though. It’s how people look at you. “A working-class Jew is like an oddity,” Barak says. “To a lot of mainstream Jews, it’s like you’re verging on homelessness or something.”

It’s the same everywhere. “People look on a limo driver and think, ‘What a loser, all he can do is drive a limo,'” says Rich Cantor, 60, who started his own New Jersey car service two years ago, after years of driving for others. “We don’t care what you’ve done before. When you drive a limo, people look at you differently.”

Cantor doesn’t believe the disdain is a Jewish trait, “any more than it’s Irish or Italian.” But Irish or Italian drivers don’t complain of exclusion from their communities. Jewish drivers do.

“You feel unworthy, like you’re in a different league,” says Robert Goldman, a New Jersey limo driver. “As a Jew, I end up feeling alien to my supposed culture.”

The Jewish cabdriver was once a familiar character, a sort of loudmouth Jewish Everyman. Even after World War II, when most American Jews moved up and out to the suburbs, Jewish cabbies remained a visible blue-collar subculture — especially in New York, where many drove the city’s fabled yellow taxis. They’ve disappeared in the past two decades, replaced by newer, more desperate immigrants.

But while the visible Jewish cabbies’ subculture is gone, Jewish drivers aren’t. Thousands still drive airport limousines in Chicago and Los Angeles, metered taxis in Boston and Miami, radio-dispatched cabs in suburbs from Long Island to Alameda County. They’re probably the largest single group of Jewish blue-collar workers. They’re simply invisible to rest of the Jewish community.

Many are Israeli and Russian immigrants, invisible because their worlds are so separate from the Jewish mainstream. “I live my life and work hard, so who cares what others think?” says Kiev-born Igor Bloom, 47, a Boston cabbie for 11 years.

Thousands more, though, are American-born Jews who were unable or unwilling to follow the standard Jewish dream.

Repeated surveys show that Jews are more affluent on average than other Americans. The median Jewish household income is a shade over $50,000 a year. For Americans overall it’s under $40,000. Still, half of all Jewish households live on less than $50,000.

Not coincidentally, those surveys also show that Jewish observance — from synagogue membership to holiday celebration — increases as income rises. A half-century ago it was the opposite: Poorer Jews were more devout. Today, unless they live within the cloistered Orthodox community, they feel unwelcome.

Richard Raines, a cabdriver in Tucson, Ariz., learned that years ago. Born into a moderately Orthodox family in the Bronx, he quit high school to join the army.

“I was the first Jewish kid I knew that went into the service,” he says. “When I got out, parents wouldn’t even let me date their daughters. I was almost like a gentile.”

There was one girl who’d waited for him to return. “Her mother said if I wanted to marry her daughter I had to go to college. They would even pay for it. But I didn’t want to. I heard she married a dentist.”

Now 59, Raines has worked as a plumber, driven a bread route, and managed health-food stores, restaurants and a bowling alley. He married a Jewish woman, raised two sons, divorced, steadily drifted further from Judaism. Both sons married non-Jews.

Ten years ago, remarried, he moved to Tucson, seeking a safer environment for his wife and infant daughter. The Jewish community is now just a vague echo.

“I know there’s a Jewish community in this town,” he says, “but they’re not people I meet. They’re more into business, lawyers, doctors and accountants. Not that they’re bad people. I just don’t run in those circles.”

Raines has no grudges. “I learned a long time ago that money ain’t the answer,” he says.

Answer, no. But money does raise questions. Rich Cantor has been part of a “tight group” of two dozen families, the core of his New Jersey temple, for 30 years. When he started driving 10 years ago, after a business venture failed, his friendships changed. “There were some that stuck by you no matter what,” he says. “Others, it was suddenly different.”

Morry Barak thinks the problem is in a changing American Jewish culture. “We produced 26 world boxing champions before World War II,” he says. “Not just Barney Ross and Benny Leonard– 26 Jewish world champions. And now look at us. It’s like a stereotype of the emasculated Jewish male.”

Partly, drivers’ problems are simply a product of the times. “The economic situation in this country is just wacky,” Barak says. “For God’s sake, my grandfather was in labor struggles to work 40 hours, and now his grandson is working 60 hours a week just to get by.”

Next month, though, Barak is interviewing with a dot.com that advertised for managers. “Like Jackie Mason says, everybody has a plan pending, and in the meanwhile we’re doing this.”

J.J. Goldberg writes a weekly column for The Jewish Journal