United We Stand

We booked tickets to go to Israel from Portland, Maine to Newark to Tel Aviv. There were three hours between flights in Newark, so I thought we’d have plenty of time. When we checked our luggage in Portland, they were not too encouraging.

“Oh, that flight from Portland is notorious for getting canceled or delayed,” the clerk at the check-in counter said. The weather in Portland was gorgeous, so I was surprised. “Just a word of advice for the future,” he continued, “never book the last flight of the day to Newark. If you miss your connection in Newark, you are really stuck.”

“Now you tell me!” I replied.

Indeed, high winds in Newark meant the airplane was stuck in Portland since air traffic control wouldn’t clear us for takeoff. The flight was delayed for 2 hours and making the connection in Newark was questionable. The flights to Israel for the next two days were completely booked so a delay would spell disaster. We had to make our flight!

We went to the gate to await the flight. “Next time, don’t book this flight!” the gate agent said. “It’s always delayed or canceled!”

“So I’ve heard!” I replied, feeling somewhat morose.

Suddenly the loudspeakers announced that our Portland plane, a small 15-seat jet, was boarding. They rushed us on board, literally throwing the suitcases into the overhead bins. “They always cancel this flight,” said the stewardess, “and I want to get out of here before they change their minds! Please,” she added with desperation, “Hurry!” The last person had barely entered the airplane when the door slammed shut. The anxiety of the crew to get this plane out at all costs before Air Traffic Control would change their mind was so palpable, I felt like I was on the rooftop of the American embassy in Saigon awaiting the last helicopter out of Viet Nam.

Fortunately when we arrived at Newark we were able to immediately board the shuttle from Terminal A to Terminal C, and then get on an electric cart which whisked us to our gate.

A very kind flight attendant who was aware of our dramatic rushed connection greeted us at the door of the plane. The flight attendant told us to relax and enjoy the flight, and that the flight atttendant would “visit” us later during the flight. We thanked the flight attendant but thought nothing more of it, and we made our way to our seats.

The nearly full plane appeared to be a pretty even mix of secular Israelis, tourists, and chassidic men aged 18 – 20. At one of the bulkhead seat rows, which had a very large open space in front of it, I heard two secular Israelis congratulating themselves on their good luck with their great location with the ultimate in leg room. The third person in their row, who was another secular Israeli, burst their balloon. “Don’t you know that you are sitting in the ‘beit midrash‘?” (“synagogue”) he said. “This is where they (pointing to the all the chasidim) come to pray!” It took extreme self-control for me to not burst out laughing at the look of utter horror and panic on their faces.

My husband and I both prefer aisle seats, so we reserved seats that were next to one another but with an aisle between us. Next to me on the left, the middle seat was empty, but the window seat was soon taken by Bubba from Mississippi.

Bubba is an offshore driller, contracted by an energy company doing major oil exploration off the coast of Haifa. Previous jobs have taken him to Libya, Dubai, and the Ivory Coast. He works 28 days straight and then has 28 days back in Mississippi with his family, and so the cycle continues. His home in Mississippi is in a very rural area. As he explained it to me:

“Ever’ afternoon, Ah see-yit (“sit” – – who knew such a little word could be two syllables?) on mah porch, an’ three cars go bah: Miss Lillian – – she’s the schoolteacher; Mr. Archie, he’s runs the gay-rage; and Mr. Leo. Mah nearest neighbuh is four-tenths a-ways away, but we’yuhs real close-like, like we’yuhs family, see? An’ ever’ afternoon Ah set on mah porch, an’ Ah watch those same three cars comin’ back home. Well, one day, Ah see another car come, and then he come agin’ and agin’, and finally Ah-yum just out there in the road with mah shotgun, and mah neighbuhs they come a’runnin’ too, and we say, “Boy, you ain’t belong here in this neighborhood!” and we’s waivin’ that shotgun in his face and he’s lookin’ real scared and then he screams, ‘Ah’s lost!’” so we tell him how to go on his way and he don’ bother us no more after that.”

Bubba looked at the screen in front of him and checked out the available programs. “Ain’t really much a’ anything Ah wanna watch, not like in the old days when Ah used t’ sit down on Sundees wi’ mah granny and she’d watch “HeeHaw.”  Ah liked the Andy Griffith show, mahself, yes ma’am.”

As the plane began to fill, twelve chassidic (Sanz, Vizhnitz, and Satmar) bochrim (young men ages 18 – 20) were sort of standing around our area of the plane, but none of them were sitting down. Suddenly they started negotiating with the passengers, asking them to move their seats, but passengers couldn’t be convinced to move from aisle or window seats to middle seats or for husbands to sit away from their wives. It suddenly occurred to me: they didn’t want to sit next to female passengers! The stewardess kept asking them to sit, but they played the “Yiddish card” as if they didn’t understand her request (they did, as they were from Brooklyn, and even though their English was heavily Yiddish-accented it was still fluent).

Meanwhile Bubba asked me, “Why won’t they sit down?” and I tried to explain why the men hoped to avoid contact with women who were not first degree relatives. “Way-ell, they-a jus’ better git used to it!” he said. “An’ why they got them funny things hanging down their ee-yuhs lahk a houn’ dawg?,” referring to their payos.

At this point the clock was ticking and our flight was going nowhere until those bochrim would sit down. The flight attendants were losing their patience. “If you don’t sit down right now . . .” one of the flight attendants said, and then lowering her voice to a whisper she added menacingly, “I’m going to touch you!”

The young men practically ran to their assigned seats like lemmings to the slaughter and buckled up. One poor fellow, clearly miserable at his fate, twisted his very tall frame completely away from the elderly woman in the middle seat next to him, crossing his legs tightly and planting himself on the far opposite edge of his seat, pulling into a fetal ball. He was going to be very stiff and sore after the 11 hour flight! Other boys discussed whether they should simply remain standing for the duration of the flight.

Shortly after takeoff, the flight attendant who had spoken to us earlier approached. “Can I get you anything?’ The flight attendant then gave us a present: a fancy toiletries case with the airline’s logo embroidered on the front. The chassidim looked at us quizzically, wondering who we were that we got such an impressive freebie all the way from First Class.

One of the young chassidic men kept asking the stewardess when the plane’s duty free shop would open. “In a few hours” was her constant response. Since the duty free catalog didn’t seem to have any real bargains, we were wondering what he was interested in purchasing with such urgency.

As we passed over London, the duty-free store on the plane opened for business, and the chassidim announced it was time for shacharit (morning prayers). One minyan congregated by the aforementioned secular Israelis who were sitting by the bulkhead, and the other group clustered at the back of the plane in the galley.

“I’m giving you 30 minutes, and then you must sit down,” said the exasperated flight attendant.

Right after davening one of the chassidic boys asked my husband if he would mind buying something for him in the plane’s duty-free shop. “They von’t take my cash” (he pronounced it, “kesh”) and asked my husband if the boy would pay him the cash, would my husband mind using his credit card to buy some single-malt scotch. My husband wasn’t sure the boy was 21, so he didn’t feel comfortable saying yes. Instead he said, “Come on, what do you need to drink liquor for so early in the morning?” But the boy would not be deterred and as soon as he was seated, we noticed him passing out “lchaim’s” to all the other boys along with post-davening kichel, thanks to a different passenger who was more accommodating than my husband.

A little while later our “personal” flight attendant came by again. “Can I get you anything to make you more comfortable?” The bochrim started eyeing us with interest. “How about some wine on the house?” the flight attendant asked, and whipped out two wine glasses and some Barkan Cabernet Savignon. The chassidic bochrim’s eyes nearly popped out of their heads. Surely we must be VIPs!

One of the chassidim couldn’t stand it anymore – his curiosity was killing him. “So!” he said as he approached my husband in his seat, “vot do you du?” Clearly, despite our simple appearance, he thought we were millionaires and philanthropists worth getting to know. He told my husband that he was looking for ways to make money and wanted to know if my husband knew anything about the stock market. This segued into a discussion about parnassa (making a living). The fellow knew only that he wanted to make a lot of money, but had no idea how to accomplish this. “It’s all from Above,” he said confidently, looking towards the heavens. My husband started discussing the concept of hishtadlus – being proactive and showing HaShem that you are making an effort instead of sitting back and waiting for Heavenly reward. He told the young man that it was important for him to find out what he liked and what he was good at, and then try to focus on acquiring related skills so that he wouldn’t have to go knocking on doors collecting charity.

“Vell, I like math,” he said. “I heard you can make a lotta money as an actuary.” When my husband asked him how much math he had under his belt – – er, make that gartel – – , he said he had never studied secular subjects since  elementary school.

“Hmm, “ my husband replied, “it might be a bit hard to become an actuary without a stronger math background.”

Nu, but I was told I could KLEP it,” the chassid replied. Klepping is a type of comprehensive college-level equivalency exam. “And that way you don’t need to go to college.”

My husband saw that what this boy really needed was a rich father-in-law.

Before landing I spoke with our flight attendant, thankful for all the special treatment. I asked how the American-born non-Jewish flight attendants handled the cultural differences, customs and attitudes of passengers on the plane. “Oh, they’re used to it,” was the diplomatic reply.

“Yeah, but how do they feel about it?” I asked.

“They don’t like it,” but then stopped and gave me a grin, “but it’s theater!”

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