Our (Temporary) Ultra-Jewish Immersion

Once I got to Tel Aviv, I found the Israel I expected — abunch of brunettes who looked like me and my family living lives similar to ours.

That’s not what I encountered traveling to Israel.

Our ultra-Jewish adventure began in the Newark airport as we waited for our connecting flight. After a lunch we didn’t need in case the airline meal was awful, we packed up the remaining half of my son’s Subway turkey and cheese sub on Italian Herbs & Cheese Bread and strolled over to the gate.

Along a corridor, a bearded gentleman in Orthodox attire – black jacket and pants, wide-brimmed hat – stopped my 20-year-old and talked quietly. “I think he said something about Cleveland,” Josh reported upon taking his leave. Then we looked at a sign posted near a table the gentleman manned: It said Tefillin, referring to the prayer boxes observant Jewish men tie around themselves at certain times. Apparently the guy was inviting Josh to buy, rent or borrow Tefillin before boarding the plane. Tefillin sounded to the untrained ear like Cleveland.

We don’t know people who use Tefillin. We never did. We’re secular Jews who have had little contact with the Orthodox, even the modern Orthodox, based, I guess, on where we’ve lived and the lifestyles we chosen. So this was Step 1 into our ultra-Jewish emersion. And, we wondered, why didn’t the Teffilin vendor also talk to my husband or 16-year-old? A mystery.

The waiting area, and then the plane, were filled with Orthodox from various sects. The women wore long skirts and wigs or scarves. The men were dressed in long jackets and special hats. Upon boarding, the overhead bins had little room for suitcases because so many wide-brimmed hats had taken up residence. One man must have been a hat maker, since he carried with him a plastic form of the traditional black head coverings.

How do Christians and Muslims fly to Israel? I wondered. Do they boycott El Al?

Before receiving our dinners, we saw about half the plane get what seemed like “special meals.” On another flight I would have assumed those meals were kosher, since they were given to the Orthodox. But, again, this was El Al, the Israeli airline. And when the flight attendants plopped down our awful chicken in pineapple sauce, we saw Glatt Kosher stickers on every item on the tray. Surely our fellow flyers are not all vegetarians? Rastafarians? Gluten-free dieters? Paleos? Is there a more-kosher-than-Glatt-option? I can’t imagine.

Once the meal was done, and the woman sitting beside me nudged me out of my aisle seat once again — the see-saw thing was a theme, even when she had to wake me. She took her and her husband’s mostly empty trays, disappeared, and returned empty handed.

Awhile later I peeked into the flight attendants’ cabin. Lo and behold, its small counter was overflowing with discarded meal trays, toppling left and right. This airplane, it turns out, was filled with balabustas who wouldn’t tolerate unwanted half-eaten food on their seat-back tables. Woman after woman had gotten up and removed their families’ smelly plastic and foil messes themselves.

Luckily, they were so busy tidying up that they failed to notice Josh’s overtly unkosher turkey and cheese sub on Italian Herbs & Cheese Bread. Had they caught him happily noshing, there would have been a revolt.

Travel safely and eat well,