A few days ago I returned from a trip in New York. While it was the first real time I spent in a snowy climate, that is not what I want to write about. It’s true I have no idea how east coasters and even Middle Easterners survive in cold weather. What I do have a few clues about is something that I realized on my plane trip back to warm Los Angeles.
My flight and overall experience on the way home was not very fun, more than usual. As I was sitting on the plane with not much to do, I started pondering about how difficult it is to be an observant Jew while traveling by airplane. I know it is not easy for anyone to go through an airport and plane ride, but there are many reasons why being an observant Jew makes it a whole different ball game.
The first part of any trip is packing for it. Most airlines allow you to bring a carry on bag and a personal item onto the plane. People usually bring things to do on the plane such as books and laptops. My bag always includes my Jewish books; usually a prayer book, Tehillim, Chumash, and a few others. I also always bring my tefillin on board just in case the airline ends up losing my luggage. I want to make sure I have tefillin with me wherever I go. After all that there is not much more room for more other a little bit of food and my ipod. My personal item usually revolves around my Jewish practice as well. I usually bring my black hat and in such times I need to carry it in a box which counts as my personal item. So between my hat box and all my seforim, I have everything I can bring on the plane.
After packing it is time to go to the airport. The first difficulty I find myself in is when I go through security. I try to wear comfortable clothes when I fly which also slightly helps when going through security. Wearing Crocs helps since we have to take our shoes off. This last trip was not easy going through security for me. Both ways, after going through the weird machine, I got pulled aside afterwards for an elegant pat-down from a TSA officer. I don’t want to claim it’s because of my beard and overall Jewish appearance, but no one else around me got pulled aside and there were a whole bunch of more suspicious looking people. However, I do not want to be pitied, for I know many married women have a tougher time than I. Women who wear sheitels (from what I have heard) have to get pulled aside nearly every time they go through security. While I guess they could wear a different hair covering to the airport, it probably is a lot easier wearing your sheitel than having to pack it in a suitcase.
After passing security there is waiting time at the terminal until boarding the plane. If there is a long waiting time, I usually will have to go use the bathroom. Since I do not like to go into the bathroom will holy seforim, even if they are sealed in my backpack, it means I have to wait to use the bathroom. Also depending on the time and length of the flight, I have to figure out if I need to daven in the airport or not. Praying in an airport makes me very uncomfortable, but it does beat praying on a plane. To the best of my knowledge, outside of Israel and New York there are no airports containing synagogues. So if I need to pray I go to find a place in which I can isolate myself as much as possible. I needed to daven Mincha when I left Los Angeles so I found a corner that seemed to be away from any crowd. While I prayed there were people walking by and I knew that they felt uncomfortable. While I really couldn’t care less how people view me when I pray, I understand that seeing someone pray like I was inside an airport isn’t the most pleasant thing to witness, for reasons I don’t need to mention. And that was just Mincha; having to daven Shacharit in an airport is a whole other story.
Finally on the airplane, the difficulties become more noticeable. Having to daven on an airplane is not fun since there is usually no space you can have (El-Al flights not included). Many flights I have been on the food in the Kosher meal is not even really Kosher. Usually this is because the hechsher is not reliable, but even going to or from Israel there is the Kosher meal and then the Glatt Kosher meal. One flight direct from Israel to Los Angeles, they only had a non-Glatt Kosher meal for me and were out of Glatt Kosher, so I did not eat the entire 16 hour plus trip (drinks not included).
On the topic of food, eating any type of bread on the plane is a big no. It is nearly impossible to wash for motzi on a plane. You could bring a neggel vasser (hand washer) on the plane, but to wash in the bathroom is not very pleasant and would take forever because little water comes out of the bathroom sink. The same goes with washing with the neggel vasser after using the restroom.
Where you sit is also important. I cannot imagine what I would do if my assigned seat was in between two women. That would not be tznius and would make me uncomfortable. I always try to make sure I have an aisle seat to avoid that problem and more so because I have my own tallness to deal with on airplanes that continuously shrink row size. Regardless of which seat I am in, on long flights I like to sleep as most people do. However, there are a couple difficulties with falling asleep on a plane. First, if I sleep long enough, there is no way to wash my hands when I wake up since I cannot keep a bowl with a neggel vasser next to my chair. Also if I am sitting next to a woman it is not appropriate. On one flight I fell asleep and when I woke up my yarmulke was not on my head anymore. Thankfully I had a spare in my backpack, but I never ended up finding that yarmulke, just one other danger of falling asleep on a plane.
Because I am awake most of the time on flights, I need to find ways to entertain myself. I have difficulty reading in moving vehicles so I am not able to read or learn for long periods of time on a flight. On most flights today there are personal TVs or at least movies that you can watch. Many Jews are so machmir they do not even watch those kind of movies, but I watch them having grown up with a lot of movies and television shows. Even though I watch the movies offered on the plane, I realize that seeing a religious Jew watching one of this years blockbuster movies is an uncanny sight. I used to feel that way when I saw others doing it, but now I am in that position and it is much more understandable.
When the plane finally lands, no one wants to get off the plane more than I do. Making sure my tzitzit are not caught in the seat or belt when I get up, I run away from the plane as fast as I can hoping that my experience on the next flight is a lot more positive. At the rates that airlines and airports are making changes, I am going to need a lot more than hope to make that happen.