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by Jeffrey Kassel
THE LAST TIME I drove a car was over thirty years ago. Who needs a car in New York City? Getting a monthly spot in a garage costs more than our rent-stabilized apartment. I take the subway and bus. Real proletarian!
Anyway, I needed to rent a car on business. Budget Rent-A-Car sounded like the most working-class option. Now, the last time I owned a car, a European red one in the 1970s, the car had a manual choke, if you know what that is, and no power anything. (Believe me when I tell you that there wasn’t even a radio. Yes, I wanted a Blaupunkt installed, but I was a frugal student in those days, so no radio.) So I needed the Budget garage-woman to show me the ropes, so to speak, on this rental car. Like, how do I turn on the engine without a key?
The car came with GPS. I’ve heard of GPS, have seen young folk navigating the streets of Manhattan with their GPS talking to them, have even seen tourists using GPS to not get lost in Venice. But I decided not to try the GPS until I read the booklet on the car seat. I found my hotel the old-fashioned way, by reading a map, a paper map, and took the booklet with me to my room.
I started reading, and it really wasn’t difficult. The manual explained how to program the GPS lady to speak in English, French, Spanish, or Chinese. Then I noticed an asterisk to a footnote at the bottom of the page. The note stated that additional languages were available, and could be programmed by using the codes available for each language at their website.
The list began with Arabic and ended with Zulu. Near the bottom of the list was Yiddish.
The next day, as I got into the car, I followed the instructions and programmed the GPS. For those of you who are not fluent in Yiddish, I’ll continue my dialogue with GPS in English, but use your imagination: My conversation with the GPS was really in Yiddish.
The female GPS voice said (in Yiddish) that her name was Esther, and nu, what did I want? I told her that I needed direction to an address, but she said, Why do you want to go there? I told her that I couldn’t believe what she was saying. What attitude, what khutspe, from artificial intelligence! She said to me, What do you mean artificial intelligence? Her name was Esther, she said, and she was sitting in front of a computer with a microphone in Brookline, Massachusetts.
As far as I had heard, when you used your GPS, you were not connected to a real, live person. I thought she was some kind of voice-recognition technology. I asked Esther if she was for real, a real live person.
She told me that as far as she knew, most GPS responses were indeed artificial computer-generated non-humans, but that she was a live being. After all, how many requests come in for Yiddish GPS? She said I could ask her anything, within reason.
All I wanted were directions, but I decided to try Esther out with something so esoteric that only a human Yiddish-speaker could know. It took me a while before I asked her what baseball player refused to play on Yom Kippur.
Esther asked me if I was a fool or what. Sandy Koufax.
That didn’t prove anything to me. She could still be programmed. I thought for a while again, then asked her where she had learned Yiddish.
She said that her parents were from Poland and she had gone to the Sholem Aleichem School in Los Angeles.
I came up with a good one. I asked her who Itche Goldberg was. Her answer: Yiddish Kultur Farband.
Now, that was esoteric! I asked her who Morris Schappes was. She said Jewish Currents. I asked who was the last editor of the Morgn Frayhayt. She told me, correctly, Pesach Novick.
My God! She had to be real!
So we got to talking. I was in my car, in the hotel parking lot, waiting to get directions, and here I was having a conversation in Yiddish with Esther through the GPS. I asked how many requests she gets for GPS in Yiddish. Esther told me that 99 out of 100 were from khasidim. She knew they were haredi usually based upon their destination requests -- places in Boro Park or New Square. She was always quite happy to talk to Orthodox women, she said, but more than a little leery to talk with men in the frum community. After all, they were not supposed to talk to women strangers. Once, she said, a man asked her to sing to him. She refused, remembering the prohibition on hearing a woman sing for fear of losing sexual control and you-know-what might happen.
Then Esther told me that she could clearly tell by my accent in Yiddish that I was a Litvak, but she wouldn’t hold that against me. I told her that I hadn’t heard that expression since my youth, back in those days when, you heard Yiddish spoken at home and in the streets, by ordinary folk, not just khasidim, and my family members might laugh because someone had a Galicianer accent. No one remembers this these days, but my GPS friend remembered well!
ENOUGH CHIT-CHAT. I told Esther where I was headed and asked for the best way to get there. Instead of giving me directions, she asked me again, Why would you want to go there? What khutspe!
When I asked her just to give me the directions, she said, “Recalculating.” I waited, and waited, and I said, “Nu, what are you doing?” She said she was recalculating, and maybe I wanted to change my mind? No, I said, nicely enough. Again she said she was recalculating. Finally I asked her what was going on. Again, she said, Recalculating.
I asked if she was refusing to give me directions, and she said yes! Do you know what is at the address you want me to send you to? I said yes, but that it was really none of her business. I explained that I was a computer security consultant, and though retired from many years working for New York State government, I needed to make a little money on the side to help pay bills so I took jobs wherever I could find them, usually within New York City, but this time out-of-town.
Esther said that I should be ashamed of myself. She had looked up the address for me, and it was the Koch Brothers Political Action Committee. This, she said, she would never do. Her recalculations were for my own sake, she said, as well as her conscience.
I was livid. I was already going to be late to my appointment, and I needed the work! I told her that I had voted for Bernie, then Hillary, and that this was only a job to make sure their computer security was up-to-date.
Esther, the Yiddish-speaking GPS person, was quick. She said: I have a friend, the editor of Jewish Currents, and he has a friend at the Workmen’s Circle who knows a staff person at Bernie Sanders’s Senate office who started a committee to elect Elizabeth Warren president. So, how about if I make inquiries, and instead of doing computer security for the Koch Brothers, you do computer security to elect Elizabeth Warren? Nu, be a mentsh!
Esther said she would call back within the hour and to sit tight. I was nervous that I would lose both the Koch Brothers and Elizabeth Warren jobs and find myself without a dime. However, I dozed off in the parking lot until the GPS came on in about forty-five minutes, and Esther said that she had vouched for me. She said she could tell that I was okay by her, a landsman. So, she had made the arrangements and tomorrow I was to drive to Boston. Esther said she would provide all the GPS recalculating I needed.
Then she asked if I was married. Esther, I said, that’s another story!
Jeffrey Kassel is a retired civil service worker who a founder of his union, the Public Employees Federation, and served as a union officer for twenty-eight years. He recently appeared here with “The Pink Triangle,” an essay about an exhibit on Nazi persecution of gay people.