An Orthodox Man, a Reform Woman, and a Nun Walk onto a Plane…
Recently, I traveled from Israel to the United States for a conference. Boarding the plane, I felt a good deal of anxiety. My nerves were not related to typical concerns about turbulence, long delays, or to flying itself. Rather, I was concerned about a problem specific to Israeli flights: women being forced to switch seats to accommodate Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) men who do not wish to sit next to women to whom they are not related.
Thanks in part to the hard work of the Israel Religious Action Center, the practice of pressuring women to change seats is illegal today. Still, even the softer requests I have received on past flights make me feel uncomfortable in my own skin and somehow ashamed no matter how modestly I am dressed. To be clear, I have happily moved to a new aisle for a mother wishing to sit with her children or a husband wanting to be next to his wife. I have even moved for a Haredi man who did not want to sit next to me as a woman, provided that the new seat was comparable or better than the original one; in that situation, though, I spent the remainder of the trip feeling unfairly judged.
These past experiences were on my mind as I boarded and took my seat. I considered myself lucky when it turned out I would be sharing a row with another woman and an empty seat. Just as I was getting ready to fall asleep for the 12-hour trip, something heavy and hard crashed down onto my head. My vision blurred and when I looked at the ground, I saw a thick plastic box, the kind used by Orthodox men to hold their hats.
The metaphor is admittedly hard to ignore: the female rabbinical student bashed in the head by a symbol of the religious hegemony in Israel she has spent years rejecting.
And yet, before the symbolism could sink in, I instinctively exclaimed, “OW! F***!”
As the owner of the hatbox sheepishly apologized, I lifted my eyes and saw a nun standing at my side. What would have been a metaphor for intra-Jewish tensions suddenly transformed into a bar joke. So, an Orthodox man, a Reform woman, and a nun walk onto a plane…
I then became the one to sheepishly apologize. “Sorry, sister,” I said while rubbing my head, “I didn’t see you there and I was just surprised by the pain.” She nodded politely and sat down behind me. The woman in my row turned to me and said quietly, “Don’t worry about it. My dad is a deacon, and he curses all the time!” We chuckled and chatted a bit as the plane took off.
I suppose I now have a dramatic airplane story, minor concussion and all, but it was hardly the one I anticipated before boarding. The incident served as a reminder that we all make mistakes that can hurt or offend others, we all need to apologize when we err, and we all have the ability to reach out and smooth over the resulting ruptures.
As we disembarked, the man grabbed his hatbox and apologized again. Even though my head still hurt, I was inspired by the kindness of my seatmate, and I assured him that everything was all right. Whatever I may feel about larger structural religious powers in Israel or about the ultra-Orthodox rabbinic establishment and the pain it causes, interpersonally, we rarely mean to hurt each other. And who knows, maybe learning to apologize and forgive on this level will one day lead to bigger shifts by those in power.