Traveling with the ultra orthodox on El Al as well as other airlines has become tricky as of late. Being stuck in a flying tin can for more than ten hours is nerve wracking for even the most seasoned of travelers and that’s without any dramatics in the air. Add some very rude passengers to the mix and it becomes intolerable. Almost everyone I know has their personal stories in regards to flying with the ultra orthodox, and unfortunately, sometimes these stories become public, even making headlines. Just a few weeks ago, it was reported that an 81 year old woman is suing El Al over her treatment on a flight. An ultra orthodox man was supposed to be seated next to her in first class, but requested that she move as he did not want to sit next to a woman. And that the Torah forbid him to do so. She’s claiming that it was discrimination and that one man should not be able to dictate to the airline who should or should not sit next to him, and then cause an 81 year old woman to move to a different seat on his say-so.
Then there was that crazy incident of an ultra orthodox man who actually smashed two of the plane’s video screens because it was showing a movie he described as “immodest”.
I travelled recently with my husband to Barcelona. On the way back, the flight was packed to the gills, with no room to spare. My husband is over six feet and usually requires an aisle seat, but on the short flight back from Barcelona, we were not given seat choices and as luck would have it, we were given a middle and window seat towards the back of the plane. My husband’s knees and back were hurting him and he wanted the window seat, so he could try and stretch his legs out against the side of the plane instead of having them cramped in the middle. Being just five feet tall, I had no choice but to acquiesce. And as more luck would have it, our seat-mate sitting in the aisle seat was an ultra orthodox man who – while trying to be polite – was not at all happy that my husband and I were not willing to switch seats. He tried without success to get someone to trade seats with him, but no one agreed. At some point, he asked me in broken English where I was from and when I answered him in Hebrew, he asked again if we would switch and I told him that unfortunately (because for me, it was rather unfortunate…) my husband needed the window seat. He waited until the last moment to finally sit down and put on his seat belt and then we were off.
As soon as the seatbelt light went off, he unbuckled himself and stood up in the aisle and began talking to a friend of his in the row behind us. To my shock, he began talking about me right in front of my face. He was perfectly aware that I spoke and understood Hebrew and yet spoke about how I refused to switch seats and that because he had asked more than once, the sin was no longer his to bear. He had done his due diligence and ״מה לעשות״ – “what do do?”
I don’t know if he meant that he was washing himself from this “sin” and wiping it back on me, but I was flabbergasted. I didn’t realize that we women possess such power as to cause a man to sin just by virtue of their proximity to us.
My husband travelled for business not long after and we were whatsapping back and forth while he was seated on the plane and waiting for take-off. Mid conversation, a hat box belonging to an ultra orthodox passenger fell right on his head, bounced off and proceeded to fall on his seat mate’s head. The owner, sitting nearby, grabbed the hat box and placed it back in the overhead compartment without so much as a sorry or any sort of apology. My husband told me what happened and I asked him if he’d said anything to the hat owner. Nope. He said he hadn’t expected an apology to begin with so he wasn’t surprised in the least that none came his way.
I think he was secretly happy I wasn’t traveling with him. Being a hot headed, fiery redhead, there was no way I would have let that slide. I joked with my husband and told him I would have held that hat ransom until I received an apology. Then I said that the next time I travelled on a flight with passengers like that, I would wear a banner like Miss America that said “״דרך ארץ קדמה לתורה – “proper behavior proceeds Torah”, which is something all of our parents drilled into us when we were younger. I also told my husband that maybe we should be demanding for apologies instead of resigning ourselves to the fact that we’re probably not going to get them so why bother ask…
The saga continued as the man, sitting directly behind my husband, proceeded to tell him, mid-flight, to put his seat in an upright position. Tell, not ask. As the person sitting in front of my husband was reclined all the way and sleeping, it was impossible for him to sit straight as there would have been no room at all for his body. He said, sorry, but no. The man would not let up, insisting that he straighten his seat, going so far as to call him “chutzpadik” for not complying with his wishes. “Well, now that I’m talking to you,” my husband said, “why didn’t you check and see if either of us – myself and my seat mate – were okay after your hatbox fell on us? Did you not think it was important to make sure we weren’t injured?” The man denied the box was his despite the fact he had walked onto the plane with it and placed it back in the overhead compartment after it fell on two people. My husband was dumbstruck at the obvious lying and outright chutzpah. What ever happened to “treat others as you would like to be treated”?
I read an article recently about this very subject that perhaps El Al should block off a whole section in the back of the plane for the ultra orthodox who do not wish to sit next to any female passengers. This would mean, of course, that they would not be able to choose their seats or have the option of sitting in first class, but would be automatically seated in this special segregated section. While in theory this would perhaps solve many problems and that there would be a greater chance that the plane would actually lift off on time (that almost never happens due to these seat changes…) it is also wrong on so many levels. Segregation is not the answer. We should be moving forward towards acceptance, tolerance and equality towards our fellow man, regardless of religion, gender, race or color, instead of backwards into the dark ages. We are, after all, supposed to be “Am Achad” – one nation. Whole and not divided.
I realize that the ultra orthodox are not the only ones on airlines causing problems – plenty of other people of all different shapes, colors, sizes and religious backgrounds have caused incidents in the past, but we can’t afford for other people who already think badly of us to have more “weapons” in their arsenal when it comes to condemning us. We need to hold ourselves more accountable, in private and in public, but especially in public. The best thing we can do for our nation as a whole is to always remember to make a “kiddush Hashem” – to sanctify G-d’s name and behave in a way that would have strangers look at us and think positive things. To do otherwise is damaging to our nation. Despite the fact that we should behave like “mensches” (upstanding human beings) at all times no matter what, it’s in times like these, when we are held up to worldwide public scrutiny, that we can’t afford to behave otherwise.