I’d read about the dilemma. I’d even written about the dilemma. And suddenly there it was, right across from me in the aisle.
With the plane soon to take off from Israel, an ultra-Orthodox man was standing uncomfortably, clearly dismayed at the sight of two women flanking the middle seat he’d been assigned.
He wasn’t making a scene, at least not yet. But the potential seemed to be there. His belief system wasn’t geared to spending 12 hours between two females.
The woman sitting next to me quickly sized things up and said, “I’ll switch with you.” He smiled weakly, didn’t say a word and just like that, the rows became single-gender.
And suddenly I had a new neighbor: a man in his late 60s, long beard and forelocks, many layers of clothing and a black hat he never took off.
Perhaps this was a chance to bridge our unfortunate Jewish divide, at least for the night, to put a human face on a stereotype, to learn a little about a world I frankly resent for what I see as extremism, coercion, misogyny and all that.
He wasn’t unfriendly. Surely he was relieved to be sitting among men, even if we didn’t share his dress or principles. But neither did he say much beyond hello. I only learned his name by peeking at his customs declaration.
And I wanted to watch Girls. I don’t get HBO at home, and the seatback video console was offering a whole season of the show I’d read a lot about but never seen. I knew it was supposed to be provocative, funny, salacious, insightful, etc., and that some of the characters tended to shed their clothes fairly often.
Was this OK? For all its charms, Girls is wildly inappropriate for many people, certainly including my seatmate. Everybody gets earphones, but it’s hard to avoid sneaking a glance at whatever your neighbor is watching.
He had already turned his screen off. But it pops on anyway to force-feed you the safety video – and when an attractive, modestly dressed woman demonstrated seatbelts and flotation cushions, he actually shielded his eyes.
I felt sorry that his upbringing and his interpretation of our faith had produced that reaction. But I also felt defiant: he invaded my space, not the other way around. I can’t tackle all the big issues confronting the various streams of Judaism, but I can watch whatever I please.
Still, one thing surely unites us all: guilt. Napping or just sitting quietly, immersed in his thoughts, Mr. Weiss was oblivious to whatever Lena Dunham was dishing out. But as I plowed through a few episodes, I wondered: would I be so resolute, would I be more considerate, if a nun were beside me? A child?
Then, the perfect storm. My seatmate pulled out a Chumash and a book of Psalms and laid them on the tray table. He ran his fingers along what looked like this week’s parshah and moved his lips silently.
Hannah, meanwhile, was trying to invigorate her love life by putting on a blonde wig and meeting her boyfriend in a bar. Pretty soon they were in a borrowed apartment and she was popping out of a hilariously tacky leather bondage outfit.
Tefillin this was not. I couldn’t carry on. Ah, the burden of 3,800 years of tradition wagging a finger at you. I doubt Mr. Weiss even noticed, but I punched out of Girls and found a Craig Ferguson comedy special. He’s delightfully vulgar, but he kept his clothes on.
Hannah will have to wait. We didn’t solve anything, but we all got home.