From the end of World War I through the 1970s, Jews made up a sizeable portion of New York City’s cab drivers, as Jenna Weissman Joselit writes:
[I]n 1920, as many as 20,000 out of 35,000 drivers in the Big Apple [were Jews]. Their prominence was as much perceptual as statistical. In the public imagination, the quintessential cabbie was a wise-cracking, seen-it-all, Yiddish-speaking (or Yiddish-inflected-English-speaking) New York Jewish male. It’s not for nothing that the celebrated 1932 Warner Brothers film Taxi! featured its protagonist, [played by] James Cagney—a fiercely independent cab driver at odds with evil men who would control the industry—in an extended conversation, in Yiddish, with one of his passengers. . . .
A niche industry, and an integral part of the immigrant economy, driving a cab didn’t require any capital to get started, which is why immigrants, then as now, found it attractive. All you needed was the ability to drive a car. . . . That you could also set your own hours enhanced its appeal among those who observed Shabbat and the holidays, freeing them from the tyranny of the timetable. . . .
Way back when, you could also make a decent living as a taxi driver, earning (and saving) enough to send your kids to college and perhaps even to purchase a medallion of your own. A one-generation phenomenon, driving a cab was more of a way station than a permanent condition, which heightened its appeal among immigrant Jews. They weren’t stuck behind the wheel forever; upward mobility and with it, the promise of America, was within reach.