Coming to the defense

How dare he judge this man for being religious, for being a Jew? I felt heat rise up from my chest to my face. My hands shook and my heart pounded.

fighting cartoon 88 248 (photo credit: Illustration by Pepe Fainberg)
fighting cartoon 88 248
(photo credit: Illustration by Pepe Fainberg)
It seems like everyone in Israel has an issue with one group or another. Maccabi fans hate Hapoel fans. My Ashkenazi roommate has Mizrahi friends, but she won't date one. Those who proudly go to the army can't stand draft-dodgers. Some of the ultra-Orthodox are anti-Zionist. And many secular Israelis seem to harbor more than a small bit of resentment towards the religious. When Boaz and I stroll Dizengoff on Fridays, after our humous lunch, he warily eyes the black-hatted men who ask him to pray. "I'll bet they didn't serve in the army," Boaz grumbles to me as we pass. I, on the other hand, sometimes take the Shabbat candles religious women offer me. But that baton-like handing of the candles is just about the extent of our interaction with the country's religious residents. That is, until my recent experience on a plane from Tel Aviv to London. As I pushed my bag into the overhead compartment, I noticed that I was seated in a sea of black hats. Inwardly, I gave the grumble Boaz usually gives - a reaction that is less my own and more of an echo of his. I sat down. The sole woman traveling with their group sat next to me. Between the baby in her arms, the diaper bag she was carrying, and her purse, she struggled just to get seated - never mind putting her seat belt on. I offered to help and she politely declined. But she was eager to chat. Gesturing with her free elbow at the two-seat row across the aisle, she told me her husband and their little boy were sitting over there. She was worried that her children would make trouble on the flight and that they would annoy the other passengers. She was a petite woman, with fair skin and a honey-colored wig, and her voice was quiet. "I hope we won't bother you," she said. I told her I was sure it would be fine. Just as she managed to get settled in, an American man stood in the aisle, hands on his hips. He stared at her husband and their toddler and announced in a booming voice, "Hey, you're in my seat." He whipped his ticket out of his pocket and said it again, loudly, pointing to the paper. "You're outta here, buddy!" he said to the religious man. As my seatmate's husband struggled to collect his things and all things toddler - which had quickly been strewn on the floor - the American man leaned over and stage whispered to his wife, "Look at this idiot. And look at his stupid black hat and his coat. What a jerk." How dare he judge this man for being religious, for being a Jew? I felt heat rise up from my chest to my face. My hands shook and my heart pounded. Suddenly, I heard my own voice shouting, in English, "That's not nice!" The American man and his wife turned around. I took my seat belt off and stood up. "The people around you can hear you and they understand English, you know. You can't talk like that. That's not nice." I braced myself for their response. The American man glared at me and then turned away. His wife looked me in the eye. "You're absolutely right," she said. "I'm sorry." One of the religious men turned to me. "Thank you, but we understand English also," he said, in Hebrew. "I know you do," I replied in Hebrew. "But people can't talk about us this way. It's not nice." As everyone shuffled about exchanging seats and tense glances, I calmed down. And I heard the echo in my head then, "People can't talk about us this way." I realized then which side of the aisle I was on - in that moment, I'd left Boaz's "they" behind, and I'm sure that if he'd been there, he would have done the same. Despite the fact that I might have much more in common with the American man - culturally and linguistically - and despite Boaz's grumblings about the religious, I felt a real bond with my seatmate and, by extension, her husband. Sometimes I worry about Israel - we're so fragmented, so divided. At times it seems we're at war with ourselves. But when it really matters, we rally around each other. And in moments like that, I'm sure we'll be fine. The writer, who immigrated to Israel in April 2008, is writing a regular column on her wet-behind-the-ears experiences here.