From some angles, I just might be a terrorist

A Rosh Hashanah tale.

Here’s the strange story of what happened in the airport on my way to drop my eldest off for her first year of college. We were through security early, and more than a little hungry. As I’ve done dozens of times while traveling with my family, I left her at the gate with the bags, and I went to forage for some food that fit our various dietary requirements.

It looked as though our best bet was a little market. I went inside and surveyed the shelves. Rather than text my daughter a list of foods, I did what I usually do, and took a picture of the refrigerated case so she could decide what she wanted.

No sooner had my phone made that tiny click, than the store clerk hurried over to me.

“You can’t take pictures here!” She was, I felt, unreasonably harsh, given that I had just snapped a sinister pic of fruit, yogurt and hummus.

I raised an eyebrow. “Really? Inside a minimarket?”

She was not amused. “Nowhere. You can never take pictures in this airport!”

In case you’re wondering, I checked this out. You can, in fact, take photos in said airport, except in restricted areas — presumably these chips and unappetizing looking salads are not “restricted.”

But I digress.

I called my daughter and listed to her the foods that were available. It’s possible, I honestly don’t remember, that I spoke in Hebrew over the phone, since we switch between the two pretty freely. She gave me her order, and I paid way too much for some fruit, some hummus with pretzels, a package of nuts.

When I got back to the gate, I saw that I had grabbed the wrong kind of hummus. My daughter went back to the store with the receipt to exchange it. I settled in to wait for the flight. A few minutes later, she returned, eyes wide.

“Ima, don’t freak out.”

This is a phrase unique in that it will actually cause its own inverse to occur.

I took a deep breath. “What happened?”

This part, I’m much more certain, was NOT in English. Sometimes it’s useful to have a “secret” language, like when you find out you just might be a terrorist. It turns out that when my daughter entered the store, the clerk was on the phone. With security. Talking about me, and how I had wantonly taken photos of the refrigerator case. She was giving them my information off the credit card receipt. Describing my sinister flip flops and menacing five foot one and a half inch frame.

We had all sorts of fantasies about my getting approached at the gate, or being pulled off the plane, viral videos zooming across the internets. All because I was too lazy to type out all the flavors of yogurt. Mostly, we were joking. A little bit, I was looking over my shoulder until the plane went wheels up.

Big picture here — I was fine. I’m fairly certain that even if security had approached me, I could have shown them the evidence on my iPhone and they would have had a chat with the overzealous saleswoman, who had such limited perspective when making a judgement about me. The truth is,  I’m white, I’m in my 40s, my clothes, my jewelry, my bags — all scream economic privilege. With the exception of that one trigger happy person, I generally read harmless. Trustworthy. Strangers give me their babies to watch on a regular basis. I came out of this unscathed, my daughter is safely ensconced in her dorm, tear free. No harm, no foul.

I had mostly forgotten about the whole incident when a week later, I found myself in line at CVS in my fairly diverse neighborhood. There was only one register open, and the line was growing. I took out my phone and absently scrolled through.

In the background, I heard a familiar sound, looked up to see what it was. At the register were two men in their 20s. They were dressed in gym shorts and t-shirts. Their accents were instantly recognizable. From so much time spent living in Jerusalem. From my own children, who learn Arabic at their Jewish school. From friends who invited us to iftar and made sure to tell us which food was completely vegetarian before they even broke their own fast. From living in a town where Jews and Muslims work hard at working together.

But also — from movies where it is almost always the cadence of bad guys. From men in the shuk who ogled me when I was too young even to know the word. From times of heightened tensions, when I always keep an eye out for a place to run inside, should a siren sound, or a shot ring out.

They were spending a lot of money on phone cards, more than people usually do at the drugstore. There was no reason for it to be menacing, and yet, I felt uneasy, just for a moment. For an instant, I thought — should I “say something”? What would I even say? Who would I say it to? Given that they were most likely making a totally innocent purchase, how easy would it be for them to explain if the police came to check?

And what must it be like for them each and every day, when they encounter people who have no other frame of reference for that accent but those scary movies and, maybe, a generalized memory of September 11th?

That’s when I realized that woman at the airport — I was more like her than I wanted to admit.

So how is this a Rosh Hashanah tale, you may ask? Because I felt like these two incidents, notable in their relative insignificance, seemed important nonetheless. This year, I will focus on teshuvah, tefilah and tzedakah — repentance, prayer and acts of charity and justice. And I will try my hardest to remember that I only ever see things from my own perspective. In the season of Judgement, I’m going to work hard to avoid evaluating others from my own self-satisfied perch. I’ll try to leave the judging to the One who sees things from all the angles.

About the Author
Leah Bieler has an MA in Talmud and Rabbinics. She teaches Talmud to students of all ages and backgrounds. Leah spends the school year in Massachusetts and summers in Jerusalem with her husband and four children. Sometimes she writes to get a break from them. The children, that is.