Monday, May 28, 2012
I am sitting in a quiet cabin here in Mendocino, surrounded by shades of green. Juncos, chickadees, towhees, allen hummingbirds, stellar jays, and sparrows flit back and forth to the feeder outside the window. Yesterday evening a skunk brazenly burrowed its snout into the fertile earth. It is so remarkably quiet here, that it seems to me quite unreal that in a very short while I will be on a flight to Israel. My nephew is getting married and it is an exciting occasion. The only problem is I have to get there! The technological wonders which virtually bridge distances can not, of course, shorten the physical distance. The flight from California to Tel Aviv is 20 hours. However, it is not the length of the flight that makes it so difficult for me, it is what happens on the flights themselves. From California to Newark the flight is uneventful, crowded, but quiet. I am not people friendly while flying, preferring to read rather than converse. The Israel experience begins when we transfer at Newark airport. Flights to Israel are situated at the far end of the concourse, in a separate area. This is for safety reasons and here we go through stricter than normal security. All this is par for the course. What makes this experience different are my fellow passengers. Hordes of men in black suits and felt hats, all bearded with curled payot (forelocks) swinging to and fro. The fringes of their prayer shawls peek out under their jackets. Women in sheitels (wigs) and long skirts, many of whom flash diamond jewelry, and all of whom are pregnant, push strollers with babies. A string of boisterous little ones follow each couple. The airline attendants announce that families of six or more children should board first. Onward they go, carrying hat containers, strollers, large wheeled bags, and stuffed handbags, way more than they should be taking on board. They push and shove ignoring seat numbers which have been called. It seems, as I stand alone, in comfortable sweats, that my fellow passengers from California have either dispersed, or metamorphosed in the restrooms, donning hats, beards, and sheitels, sort of like superman in reverse. On the plane is complete chaos as the men shove their belongings overhead and walk up and down the crowded aisles greeting each other, shaking hands, looking around. Some stand in their seats, prayer books in hand. All ignore the pilot's repeated requests for everyone to be seated. Eventually in a cajoling tone peppered with threats the pilot begs for everyone to be seated. Already he has tried to insist they hand their baggage to the attendants to be put in the hold. No one heeds him. It is utter pandemonium. The harried attendants eventually get the men, women, and many many many children to sit and buckle their seat belts. The second the plane ascends and the seatbelt light is turned off, there is a mad dash for the toilets. I wonder whether there is perhaps a commandment that instructs all these people to spend most of the flight in the restrooms. When they are not using the restrooms they chat and move around even though this is a night flight and some of us have already flown a long way and would like to sleep. When I do nod off it is to be awakened by a rustling sound. I awake to the grey light of dawn filtering in and see the men all stand up, they congregate on one area of the plane facing east. They don their prayer shawls and wind the teffilin around their wrists and arms. I fear that, like a boat, the plane may overturn. The men daven, swaying back and forth, and sideways. The women stand in their seats, prayer books in hand. Once I was on such a flight, just before succot. Two women sat next to me undeterred by my open book and and unsmiling face. It turned out they were prayer warriors from North Carolina. A group of them were going to the holy land for the Feast of Tabernacles. One of the men carried a large curling ram's horn. They all wore thick gold chains with bejeweled star of david pendants. I was surrounded by a sea of insanity. Everyone had bibles and prayer books open, in Hebrew and English. I was the only one trying to read a novel, set in Los Angeles. At various intervals all got up to pray, the Hasidim on one side of the plane, and the prayer warriors, a concept I didn't get, not to be outdone, made a circle in the middle. As the flight began to descend into Ben Gurion airport an excited air of expectancy took over. The blazing heat and light of the sun filled the cabin and my two neighbors grabbed my arm, insisting that as a daughter of Israel it is my duty to return forever to the Holy Land. They gestured heavenward as the cabin filled with golden light that meant yet another heat seared day in Israel. "Even the Lord cannot contain his glory." She cried. For me, these flights have been fascinating anthropological experiences, which I no longer care to repeat. I have insisted that I leave on a Friday, when religious Jews do not travel. Evangelical Christians will hopefully, not be going at this time of the year, so I hope it will be a flight as quiet as it is here in the cabin in Mendocino.