Only on El-Al

It’s one of those experiences few travelers get to have nowadays. I was aboard an El Al flight to Israel, when suddenly a group of bearded men, all Ultra-Orthodox Jews, stood and walked to the rear of the plane. Strange, I thought, and immediately thought of the rapture. Ooops, that could never happen on El Al!.

We had been on the flight for nearly eight hours, and the sun was just peeking over the horizon, reluctantly lighting up the plane for we sleepy travelers. The men were congregating to perform their morning prayers. Jewish ritual requires at least ten men to be present for the service to carry even more significance in their communion with God.

Here is an iPhone image I took of one of the men, who apparently had overslept and was praying alone. It was extraordinary to see how easily the flight attendants accommodated the gathering, staying out of their way for the 15 minutes they required. They then quietly returned to their seats as if nothing unusual had happened.

Earlier in the flight, some of those same Ultra-Orthodox men walked around the plane asking male passengers if they were Jewish and, if they were, would they like to join them in putting on the Tfillin. Tfillin are a pair of ritualistic leather straps, known in English as phylacteries, that have a box attached to each set. The boxes contain hand inscribed prayers. One set is placed on the head and one on the left arm, next to the heart. These phylacteries are described in the Old Testament and are a way that pious Jews “bind” themselves to God, by wrapping the leather straps around their arm and placing the second box on their forehead, held in place by the straps. With the heart and brain now connected, the person is supposed to feel a personal connection with their Supreme Being.

Be that as it may, the non-Jewish passengers were alternately amused or curious regarding the ritual and lively discussions broke out throughout the plane, or at least in the cattle section, which is where I was stanchioned. Groups of men and women watched as the Rabbis helped the Jewish volunteers with the ritual. Imagine that happening on a Southwest Airlines flight between Dallas and Little Rock!

Only one thing could possibly have interrupted such an essential spiritual act. DINNER! Jews, like Italians, ascribe to eating certain spiritual dimensions that trump virtually any God-given commandment including, apparently, Thou Shalt Not Kill. I know this because many were the times I heard my Aunts and Uncles say to me: “Oy, I’d kill for a piece of your mother’s gefilte fish!” Which is also probably why I never ate gefilte fish in front of my relatives.

Anyway, with the announcement that dinner was about to be served, Tfillin were hurriedly packed into their embroidered pouches and the Rabbis led the charge back to our respective six inches of real estate.

Which brings me to my final point in all this, that being that if cattle were actually packed into spaces that were proportionally as tight as El-Al’s economy seats, how long do you think it would be before the ASPCA, ACLU, PETA, ADA, and every other dyed-in-the-wool (make that non-toxic dye, of course… kosher, too) animal loving organization sued for inhumane treatment?

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