Friday, March 26, 2010

Grace in the Sky

Recently, I traveled to Israel for the first time in three decades. It was not for lack of interest that kept me away. Life happened...and I am a fearful flyer. But I wanted to go on this particular trip so much that I displaced my nervousness by focusing on the trip's comprehensive itinerary.

Though only five days, my visit was an emotional experience. I have wonderful memories: the sights and sounds, of course, and the food, glorious food. The people I met, both my fellow American travelers and the Israelis, were unique, dynamic and passionate.

Yet my first and lasting impression is of the flight there.

It begins at the gate. El Al, Newark. Slowly, the passengers arrive and you notice: the Orthodox families with multiple children in tow; the young people, of all persuasions, with sandals on their feet, carrying heavy backpacks; the couples in their later years, going for a bris (circumcision) or a bar mitzvah; the Israelis going home.

We board the plane and instantly, it is a beehive of activity. A family, the lot of us, going together to Eretz Israel, the Land of Israel. If you were to deplane now, you would have already seen one special aspect of Israel: a picture of Israeli society.

It is 1:30 am and dinner is served. Soon, there is silence. For a few hours, a blanket of calm.

What is amazing is how the flight attendants - young and seasoned, men and women - have been floating throughout the cabin, graciously tending to each person's needs expeditiously. They work the aisles, noting the passengers who need kosher meals, the children with air sickness, the praying gentlemen in their way. They are well-trained but there is more here: an ability to become one with the group. They, too, are family.

Five a.m. and I wake to movement. We still have five hours to go, yet the Orthodox men are up, preparing to daven, to pray. I watch their intentional choreography - first their jacket, then the tallit (prayer shawl), and finally, the wrapping of the leather straps of their tefillin (phylacteries). First one way, then the other. I am familiar with this routine, as my grandfather did it every morning. I sit in awed silence, remembering him some 30 years ago in the early morning light of his living room windows. It's daybreak once again, this time somewhere over northern Europe, and each man moves to the back of the plane, swaying and bending in unison with the congregation. The back of the plane, now sacred space.

Witnessing this strange yet special "shul in the sky" elicits an equally unique thought. I am safe on this flight... these religious fellow passengers offer me a sanctuary. My fear of flying, which I've had most of my life, suddenly dissipates. It is, of course, all in my head, but what a very special moment.

Leaving Israel five days later is incredibly bittersweet but I have no hesitation as I queue up at Tel Aviv's Ben Gurion Airport. Once again, the family is together and my anxiety is a thing of the past. Our group slowly moves through the winding rows. A quick hug, we say Shalom and we're on our way.

I sit next to a young modern Orthodox woman, on her way home to New York after a visit with her grandparents. We chat and enjoy dinner. Two hours into the flight, my spirits soar as a beautiful young attendant hands out individually wrapped, large sweet dates and says, boker tov, good morning. It is a new day, and it's Tu B'Shevat, Israel's Arbor Day. Only on El Al. Only in Israel.

Caring, understanding and menschlikeit. Grace at 40,000 feet.

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