(JTA) – An Egyptian-American comedian and a Bukharian Jewish cab driver broke bread together at New York’s 2nd Avenue Deli, a meeting that’s been viewed more than 700,000 times on TikTok.
As part of his online series Keep the Meter Running, comedian Kareem Rahma hails a yellow cab and tells the driver: “Take me to your favourite place and keep the meter running.”
Over a series of short videos, Rahma talks with the cab drivers about their lives, families and backgrounds, “quickly forming a congenial bond and culling pearls of casual profundity,” as Vanity Fair noted in December 2022.
Rahma, the cabbie and his two-person film crew then head to a destination of the driver’s choosing — such locations have included a mosque, a Buffalo Wild Wings in Queens and a casino near JFK Airport.
In the most recent episode, Rahma meets Abram, a Bukharian Jewish cab driver who came to New York from Uzbekistan 29 years ago. When Rahma implores Abram to take him to his favourite place, Abram, who doesn’t provide his last name, replies: “Let’s go to [a] kosher restaurant.”
The restaurant is the 2nd Avenue Deli, the iconic New York deli that was started by Abe Lebewohl in 1954 as a 14-seat eatery on the Lower East Side.
Since launching his series last October, Rahma has released 15 episodes of Keep the Meter Running. The roughly six-minute spots are sliced into 90-second segments and posted to his TikTok channel, where he has nearly 379,000 followers, and to his Instagram (207,000 followers).
“I’m 36, and this is the first time in my life that I’m like, Oh, I know what I’m supposed to do,” Rahma told Vanity Fair. “This is what I love. I finally have arrived where I’ve always wanted to go.”
In the first of five videos featuring Abram, the pair discuss how Judaism and the Torah have helped Abram stay focused and fulfilled. “If I’m not going to the synagogue, I am working like a new driver. I’m shaking,” Abram tells Rahma after sharing that he goes to synagogue every morning at 5:30 a.m. “It gives me power.”
As it happens, Abram is the second Bukharian driver to appear on the show — in January, Rahma rode with Roman, who moved to New York City from Tajikistan, also 29 years ago. The pair were joined by Roman’s friend Yan, at Salute, a kosher restaurant in Rego Park, Queens where they dined on lamb shish kebabs and khash, a soup made of boiled cow bones. They discuss children and friendship; Judaism did not come up.
In the car, Abram also sings a Russian song about mothers, which a TikTok comment identifies as a song by Yulduz Usmanova, an Uzbek singer and actress. He also tells Rahma that the secret to his 40-yearlong marriage is to listen to his rabbi — to buy his wife a present of gold or diamonds for every occasion, and flowers every Shabbat.
When they arrive at the deli — which is no longer on Second Avenue but at 162 East 33rd Street — the pair talk with Steve Cohen, who’s been a manager at the deli for 40 years. Cohen points out the framed photos of various New York celebs that adorn the walls, including the late New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner, the writer Sidney Zion, comedian Jerry Seinfeld and actor Paul Reiser, and discusses the murder of the deli’s founder, Lebwohl, in 1996.
Soon, platters of traditional Ashkenazi fare arrive: stuffed cabbage, kugel, latkes, gefilte fish, kasha varnishkes, pastrami. “This has, like, flavours that I’ve never had before,” Rahma says approvingly, tucking into the sweet-and-sour stuffed cabbage.
As they feast, Rahma asks if there’s a Jewish prayer that’s said before eating. Abram instructs his new friend on the blessings before eating — distinguishing between “ha’adamah” for food from the ground, “ha’etz” for food from trees and “shehakol” for meat and other foods. Abram translates for Rahma, saying the prayers are to “thank Hashem for giving the food.”
“This is some of my favourite food,” Rahma says. “Except for the gefilte fish. That’s something I’m not interested in.”
“That is a perfect pastrami sandwich,” Rahma adds, closing his eyes in delight. “Thank you for taking me here.”
“I’ve known this business a long time,” Abram responds as their repast — which ends with some extra slices of corned beef and brisket from Cohen — comes to an end.
Back in the taxi, the total fare runs Rahma $150 — and he generously adds another $100 for Abram’s tip. “God bless you,” Abram tells him, ready to pick up a new (and presumably less viral) fare.