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November 18, 1998
There is a word that Israelis use to describe a big mess: balagan. To articulate it properly, roll your eyes, shake your head, and emphasize the ultimate syllable. Tower Air's Flight 31, on which I was recently a passenger, was a total balagan. I was returning to the States before the Jewish holidays. Flying between New York and Tel Aviv at that time is like negotiating Chicago O'Hare the day before Thanksgiving.
Flight 31 was scheduled to take off at 11:00 p.m., but in fact took off closer to midnight. By the time we boarded, a stiff communal crankiness prevailed. We were all up past our bedtimes. As we filed aboard, the flight crew welcomed us with the brisk, 'round-the-clock cheeriness their vocation demands. Most of us took our seats with the usual amount of jostling and jockeying for space in the overhead luggage bins, but in the row in front of mine, somebody was having a problem.
He was an American in his early or middle twenties, wearing the black hat and suit that typify what U.S. newspapers generally call the "ultra-Orthodox" Jew. In Israel -- and even in a microcosm of Israeli society like my flight -- that term is so general as to be almost meaningless. There is a range of fine distinctions to be made concerning those men in black -- the cut of their coats, the angle of their hat brims, the lilt of their speech. This young man was a yeshiva student who had been assigned a seat apart from a group of fellow students traveling en masse to their homes in the States.
The student had determined that he couldn't sit in his assigned seat. On one side was an American woman wearing blue jeans and holding an infant; on the other was a woman in a wig and reading glasses who looked to be in her seventies. Sitting between two women would be unthinkable: he had to switch seats. He moved back a few aisles and settled into a seat in an empty row.
After the momentary distraction I lost myself in my book, but I was recalled to the Tel Aviv runway by the sound of raised voices: a resonant baritone speaking Arabic, and the clipped, efficient voice of a flight attendant dealing with a difficulty. The first voice belonged to the patriarch of the only identifiable Arab family on the flight. The women wore richly embroidered, simply cut dresses, and the men wore Western clothing and lots of cologne. The children sported blue jeans and shirts richly embroidered with images of Disney characters. The father, agitated by the young man's refusal to move from his family's row of seats, had called the flight attendant to intervene.
The flight attendant displaced the yeshiva student, showing little sympathy for his predicament, and seated the family. In her dealings with the student she was a model of suppressed hostility: only concern for her livelihood and the possession of jaw muscles constantly trained to smile could have prevented her from breaking into a snarl.
The student returned to the row in front of ours to try his luck. The couple on the left offered to switch their seats so that the husband would be sitting next to him. But that still left the older woman on the right. Perhaps the couple could move in toward the center, allowing him to sit on the end between the husband and the aisle? No, they needed access to the aisle because of the baby.
Growing anxious, the young man appealed to others close by to trade seats. My immediate neighbor, an attractive young mother of four -- who had her brood neatly seated between her and her husband -- adjusted her wig and whispered sympathetically to me. She wished she could help him out, she said, but her kids were too young to sit apart from her. I wondered aloud whether maybe, given the present duress, the student might deem it permissible to forbear the mixed seating. My neighbor's response was soft but firm: some rabbis don't allow mixed seating under any circumstances.
The student ended up sitting elsewhere, but before the seating episode was finally resolved, a couple of crew members had been called to the scene. One moaned to the other, "What a balagan ..." As they coaxed, pacified, and insisted with increasing passion that the student take his seat, I was tempted to imagine the feelings he might awaken in them, and vice versa. Jews like him, with their far-reaching religious needs, are a constant source of inconvenience for many secular Israelis. And the secular, with their insensitivity to their own and others' Judaism, are objects of both pity and resentment for many observant Jews. Arabs represent both the exotic and the intimately close: they too are Semites. The flight stewards, the student, and the Arab family each had fairly simple requests. Most people living in Israel do. Nevertheless, all kinds of resources are scarce, and the requests come into inevitable conflict. Give Israelis a plane cabin's width of space, and there will be territorial disputes.
Each party was speaking in a different language, literally and symbolically. Their words seemed to hover in the pressurized cabin without being heard by the others. No, you cannot take someone else's seat. No, I cannot sit in a place that compromises my sense of modesty. No, you cannot block the aisle. This inability to hear was nothing short of a curse, the punishment issued in Genesis 11:7: "Let us go down and confound their speech there, so that they shall not understand one another's language." I realized, as Flight 31 hurtled into the night, that we were riding the Tower of Babel.
Miriam Udel Lambert is a former Atlantic Unbound intern now studying in Israel. Her last Atlantic Abroad dispatch was from Jerusalem.
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