Eight years passed between the day I landed in Israel with the intent to remain as a citizen, and when I returned to Detroit, ostensibly to check on my ailing father, but also, riding somewhere along the hazy line between subconscious and conspicuously intentional, to see if the “real” America had worn down its sharp edges in the same way America had in my dreams. And so I packed a suitcase and a surprisingly short list of demands (macaroni and cheese, beauty supply hair products, and Black Barbie dolls) and began the 15 hour journey to my hometown.
I ran into trouble almost immediately at the airport. English speaking African-Americans need to be easily identifiable as culturally Jewish (i.e., Right-Wing Orthodox or Ultra-Orthodox) or Evangelical Christians to get through security at Ben Gurion Airport unscathed, and I was wearing pants and not speaking in tongues. I opened by asking if the Lufthansa security guard spoke English.
“Yes,” she replied. Followed immediately by a barrage of Hebrew. I turned to look at my friend who was helping me cope with my social phobia long enough to board the plane, and shrugged.
“If you’re asking whether this is my luggage,” I began, my voice brimming with goodwill, “it most certainly is.”
I had learned a lesson in the importance of luggage ownership from the pilot trip I had taken in 2006 with my then husband. We had borrowed our suitcases, and the El Al security guard at Chicago O’Hare was understandably thrown off his stride when we admitted the luggage wasn’t ours.
More Hebrew from the Lufthansa security guard at Ben Gurion. Another shared glance between my friend and me.
“And now, you’re asking if I packed my bags myself,” I continued, nodding in the affirmative.
On the same 2006 pilot trip, a kind friend had offered to make our lives a little easier by packing some of our clothes. The atmosphere at the EL Al desk had started to get a little stormy when we said so.
Next the Lufthansa guard gave a final burst of Hebrew ending in a triumphant accusatory upturn. By this time in the 2006 pilot trip, my ex and I were just beginning to understand that telling an El Al guard that someone did indeed “give you something to take with you on the plane” was a bad idea.
At this point in Ben Gurion, however, my friend pointed out that it was a complete waste of time to ask me anything in Hebrew since I could barely order a cup of coffee without getting my tongue tied in Ivrit. This got him banished to the sidelines while my interrogation proceeded. It did have the end result of the guard switching to English though. She quickly asked me the same three questions again about my packing habits that every Israeli child learns in kindergarten, and then moved on to the hard ones.
“Where did you go to synagogue in America?”
I thought about this for a few seconds. Where did I go when I had complete free will, and my decision wasn’t restricted by children, distance, and 100 other reasons unrelated to religion? Or where did I go on those rare occasions when, as a mother of two kids under three, I would find myself attending a religious service.
“I didn’t go. I had little kids.” I copped out. She grunted noncommittally.
“And where did your husband go to synagogue?”
“It was eight years ago,” I stammered. “I remember it was in a basement.”
The Lufthansa guard nodded approvingly. Pious Jews go to synagogues in basements. She found a supervisor, and began speaking to him in an animated voice. I saw him give a resigned sigh and flap his hands like, go away. The Lufthansa guard came back and put stickers on my luggage and identity card. And sent me to check in my bags. Note to self, when it comes to security, Lufthansa, you, Sirs, are not El Al.
Lufthansa also needs to work on their cultural awareness. I was seated next to a lovely Muslima from Ann Arbor, Michigan who was dressed in a sedate hijab. I was wearing a jogging set. When the time came for the meal, the flight attendant handed the kosher tray to my seat mate, who began digging in. I asked for mine, and flight attendant got a little pale. Well, paler. She, and most of the flight crew were already pretty pale.
It turned out that the tray she had given to my seat mate was meant for me, and had been clearly labelled with the correct seat number. As far as I could gather, I just didn’t look the part, so she decided the label was a mistake. She seemed to insinuate that it was my fault somehow. I sucked it up and took the vegetarian meal. And it happened again at the breakfast meal, except that my seat mate told the second flight attendant that she was making a mistake.
Needless to say, I was tired and a bit disgruntled when I landed at Detroit Metro. After crossing half the terminal to pick up my luggage, I wandered over to the elevator that would take me to the rental car shuttle. I noticed a huge line for the elevators, and eventually got close enough to see that the wait was due to the size of the elevators in comparison to the size of the people trying to use them. Each elevator had a sign which said it could fit 10 people or 1400 pounds, but clearly no more than three or four people were going to fit, due to the hefty proportions of all but one or two of those waiting to descend. And I realized that I was truly back in America, the land of the fry, and home of those headed for the grave.