5

Turbulence: You May Experience Jerks

The title pretty much says it all.

But to give you some context, it started this morning, when I was supposed to be getting ready for class but reading Facebook on my phone as usual, and I came across an article from a newspaper in New Zealand about this. By the time I had thought of a response, I had long lost the link, so I found an almost identical article here, in the Washington Post.

The article I linked above adds some scenarios that I didn’t encounter in the New Zealand article, so I’m just going to focus on the first one. It happened on an El Al airplane leaving New York (Kennedy, presumably) for Tel Aviv. Several dozen Orthodox Jewish men, some of them rabbis, refused to take seats near women, as Jewish law forbids close contact with non-related women, see one of my negia posts for more on that. After getting all the men seated, the plane finally took off, only for the men to stand back up during the flight and congregate in the aisles, rather than sitting next to women. This made life difficult for everyone else on that eleven hour trans-Atlantic flight, especially when the men offered passengers money to switch seats before takeoff.

I have to say, well done rabbis. You sure showed that plane full of people your true colors. Well, your true monochrome, that is. Now, you’ve not only gotten yourselves a reputation for being jerks, but this stunt will absolutely do wonders for the image of Jews, specifically the Orthodox, around the world. The world is not tailor-made for Jewish people; I’ve learned that the hard way, going to school on Jewish holidays and not being able to eat much from menus in places like Applebee’s, Wendy’s or the entire state of Louisiana. You’re right in the fact that it’s just not fair sometimes. But you have to pick your battles, and when you’re faced with being stuck in a giant metal tube for eleven hours with one hundred or so other people who are trying to live their lives, just sit your ass down and make your your seat belt is securely fastened. This whole not-sitting-next-to-women crap has gone way too far. The Talmud says that men and women may touch in unavoidable situations or during goal-oriented tasks, such as passing plates around a table, doing the laundry, or moving furniture. Why can’t travel fall under the same category? After all, nobody goes on a plane just to sit there and do stuff for the rest of their lives; it’s a temporary situation, so open your book, crank some Miami Boys Choir up to full volume and suck it up. The fact that it’s almost Rosh Hashanah makes it even worse. It’s like, you want to get written in the Book of Life? Try acknowledging other human beings.

I actually have two personal stories about this. The first happened in Israel. I was flying back from Cyprus, and my then-girlfriend surprised me at the airport to accompany me back to Jerusalem in a sherut (shared taxi). The principle of the sherut, especially at Ben Gurion Airport, is that you hand the driver your suitcase and pile in, sitting wherever there is a seat. Not a hard concept. It was late at night, and in our sherut there happened to be, other than us and the driver, five others: an elderly couple, a secular Jewish guy, another guy, and a younger Haredi woman traveling alone, which is a rarity. There were plenty of seats in the van, so we clambered into the back row. The couple sat in two of the front seats, and the Haredi lady sat alone next to a window. The secular Jewish guy enters the van and sits right next to Haredi lady, who asks him to give her some space, because she’d rather not sit next to him. He moves, but as soon as we’re all packed in and the motor starts, he lets Haredi lady have it, laying into her for being a Haredi, always wanting her own way, not living in this century, having so many extra privileges for being religious, and so on. Keep in mind that it’s creeping close to midnight, and we’re all tired. Haredi lady says something back to him, and he keeps going. I can barely see her face in the moonlight, but she looks like she’s on the verge of tears, so the other guy and the elderly couple come to her rescue, while we watch bemusedly from the backseat. It basically lasts the whole ride back to J’lem, not letting up until he gets out. Thankfully, he’s the first stop. After he is off, she breathes a sigh of relief.

The second story happened at Kennedy Airport on New Year’s Eve. I was on my way to Vienna, Austria, to meet DAT for the Slovakia Winter Retreat and I was boarding the plane for the first leg of the trip: New York to Zurich, Switzerland on Swiss Air. Not a lot of people fly on NYE, which is fantastic, because there is plenty of leg room. It seemed like I was among the only American on the flight. Everyone else was either going back to Switzerland, a religious Jew connecting to Israel, or a brightly-clothed African who, as I later learned, were all connecting to Douala, Cameroon. I get to my seat, and there is a super-religious Israeli girl about my age sitting in the window seat of the row. In my pajama pants, Edward Gorey t-shirt, and bright green DAT headband, I look anything but Jewish. She very visibly rolls her eyes and starts chattering in Hebrew to her friend who is standing right there. I did not catch all of what she was saying, but she was mostly bitching about having to sit next to a boy the whole time and how much this flight was going to suck. All while I’m sitting right there, pretending to stare off into space but actually listening and understanding most of their conversation.

People are starting to settle into their seats, and a lovely flight attendant comes over to me and asks me for my meal preference. She then asks if the religious girl is also sitting in this row; by this point, she has gotten out of the seat and is standing in the aisle pouting. She then addresses her directly, that she needs to sit down so she can get her meal preference, and the girl either ignores her or does not understand her English. I whisper to the flight attendant that I can speak Hebrew, and I proceed to get Miss Orthodox Jewish Bitchface’s attention by locking eyes with her and saying in rapid and pretty-well-accented (if I say so myself) Hebrew something along the lines of:

“Listen, honey. This nice lady wants to know if you’re sitting here, so you can get the food you want.”

The religious girl doesn’t look so much surprised as she does disgusted that I’m even talking to her (in her own language!) and says something like:

“Maybe I’ll sit here, maybe I’ll sit over there with my friend, I don’t know, whatever.”

I translate this to the flight attendant, who tells me she needs the girl to sit down in a seat because we are preparing for takeoff and she needs to know what the hell this girl wants to eat. Just doing her job. I translate this into Hebrew and convey it to the religious girl, who walks off in a huff with her nose in the air. Turns out I will not be seeing her for the remainder of the flight.

I turn to the flight attendant:

“Yeah, so from the bitchy display we just saw, I take it she’s not going to be eating on this flight. And if she gets hungry, well, tough luck.”

I earn some brownie points with the flight attendant, whose life is made easier by drawing a line through the religious girl’s name on her list. I feel powerful, and a little bad that she won’t get any food, but frankly, with the way she talked about me in front of my face and how she brushed off both me and the flight attendant, she didn’t deserve the delicious hot rolls and free champagne. If you don’t want to cooperate with me, someone who is trying to help you potentially get the food that you want/need, fine. But don’t take it out on a lady who’s just doing her job.

People. Entitled people.

Anyway, gentlemen…you can always swim across.

***

Works Cited

Sullivan, Gail. “Ultra-Orthodox Jews delay El Al flight, refusing to sit near women.” Morning Mix. The Washington Post. 26 September 2014. <http://www.washingtonpost.com/news/morning-mix/wp/2014/09/26/ultra-orthodox-jews-delay-el-al-flight-refusing-to-sit-near-women/&gt;

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3

Hava Negia

After a long period where my reading consisted of scripts and books on theory and not much else, I’m returning to the piles of books I currently have out from the library. One of my current reads is The Men’s Section by Elana Maryles Sztokman. I haven’t finished the book yet, so I can’t write a proper review, but I do want to address one of the topics that Sztokman has only touched lightly so far.

I’m talking about negia.

Negia (alternately spelled negiah/negiyah) is the Jewish concept of touch. More specifically, negia laws refer to the halachic concepts of physical contact between the sexes. In Orthodox Judaism, men can be shomer negia and women can be shomeret negia, both of which basically mean “watch your touching.” Those who make this choice do not come in contact with members of the opposite sex unless they are related to them by blood or marriage, and usually will refrain from touching others in public. Observance levels run the gamut from merely no physical contact (handshakes/dancing/hugging/kissing) to avoiding any chances of contact such as sharing a bus seat (I have a story about that), an airplane row, or even standing close to the opposite sex in a crowded room or while posing for a photograph. Negia rules do not apply to babies and small children. Arbitrary contact is permitted, such as if fingers touch when passing something at the dinner table. And of course, accidents happen; one time, I was at a Chabad house, standing and talking with someone with one hand on a chair and one on my hip, and the rabbi’s wife walked right into my right arm (the one that was resting on my hip) by accident. I felt so guilty for standing with my elbow in her way, but she said not to worry, that it was her own fault for not watching where she was going.

Even though I grew up Orthodox, negia was never a huge factor in my life. At my synagogue, it was a non-issue; if someone was shomer negia, which some probably were, it never became an issue, and most people greeted each other with a handshake or a hug, regardless of gender. Even as a teenager and young adult, I would greet my mother’s and grandmother’s female friends with a hug.

In high school, the rules of negia became a little blurry. According to school rules, touching the opposite sex was not banned, but it wasn’t promoted either. I remember dancing with girls in school plays, but still, I got yelled at more than once for walking arm-in-arm with a female friend through the halls or for hugging a girl in the presence of a teacher. Some students chose to become more observant, negia included, and that was okay, but my school never made a statement outright about the matter one way or the other. Still, they sent me and others mixed messages over whether it was appropriate or not.

After high school, I definitely became more aware of negia. In college, I made more than a few faux-pas by reaching to hug a girl who was indeed shomeret, so I began to assume everyone was. One time, though, a girl who I thought was shomeret gave me a hug, and when I asked her, she said “Me? Shomer?” So I began the habit of asking girls if they were shomeret when I met them, and every single time I did so, I got a laugh or a confused look. Only once did I actually ask a girl that question and she answered in the affirmative. Talk about bad negia-dar.

This brings me to my first question…why don’t I become shomer negia?

It would make things a lot easier; I would be following halacha. I would chop my time saying hello and goodbye to people in half. I wouldn’t feel obligated to shake a woman’s hand or hug a woman I didn’t like. I wouldn’t have to worry about getting someone else’s germs on me. I wouldn’t have the awkward handshake, or too-long hug. I would still have the awkward eye contact thing, but I guess I don’t have a choice on that one. I’d be at less of a risk of getting makeup or food on me. It would also be something that might make people more interested in me, asking me why I made that life choice or thinking of me highly for having strong convictions. On the other hand, though, it would totally ruin my dating life. Plus, I would miss the physical contact. Studies have shown that people who lack physical contact in their lives are sadder and die sooner. And it sure would make ballroom dancing tough.

Although touch means different things to different people, I feel that as humans we have evolved to the point where contact between the sexes shouldn’t be so much of an issue. If a person feels that he/she wants to be left alone, then that’s perfectly fine, but for the rest of us, we can control ourselves in public situations.

That brings me to my second question…would I ever become shomer negia?

Answer: highly unlikely. I don’t really care what other Orthodox Jews think about me. I’ll continue to assume that people are shomer in public, Jewish situations, unless she makes the first move, but in the vast realm of my life, refraining from physical contact with the opposite sex would not be in my best interest. As an academic and a conference-goer, some women might be taken aback should I offer the man in the conversation a handshake and not them; or, if I turn down a handshake, it could lead to an awkward moment. Plus, I have too many wonderful female friends who I like to hug. And if it meant that I could never ballroom dance again (or, only with another man), I’d say no, thank you.

Maybe if I could get a loophole for professional activities and activities such as dance where contact is required for a purpose…

Yeah. No.