There are Rules
There are rules, somewhere, about how to be a Chasid on an airplane. In that same rulebook there are most likely also a set of behavioral norms for a woman in stretch pants lying about in the back of the plane.
My leg started swelling on a flight to Budapest. I went to the flight attendant for ice and took to the empty row in the far back of the plane where I could elevate my knee. Sitting across the aisle was a swipe of off white and black stripes. A giant man in his late thirties with gorgeous greying peyot was davening in the back of the plane. When I walked by in my thigh defining outfit there was a protective whisk of the tallis.
I decided things; like he hated that I could see him pray. He was wearing a special tallis with silver adornments along the hem at the top. He was wrapped in tfillin, his head covered by his shawl. I was a bit jealous; I wanted to pray and get dressed up in costume to do it. And in addition, I felt evil. If he had seen me, and in my female secular glory no less, was I not the interruption to his prayer and piety?
I sat across and faced the window so I wouldn’t flash my naked knee as I iced it. I had my back to my Chassid friend and suddenly felt something on my neck. He was standing now, and whipping his tallis about, mostly striking my face and neck with the fringes. I thought it was a joke. Then I thought he had special ownership issues. Then I was angry, convinced he was purposefully tracing a tallis across my head to somehow purify me.
I don’t like being in confined public spaces with orthodox Jewish men because I don’t understand the boundary. I don’t know when I need to stop and protect their piety, or when I need to stand as I am. On the sherut to the airport a young yeshiva bucher got on last. All the seats were taken and he had to make his way to the back and squeeze between two women. All I could think was how this was assur, and how he would have to go to the mikvah to purify himself.
On the plane I whispered assur under my breath at one point, an ugly effort to shame my Jewish neighbor. I spent most of the flight, especially after taking measures to turn away from the praying man, frustrated and annoyed with being shunned and being touched by his tallis, his belly, etc., as he moved about freely. I resented his sense of entitlement. I resented, most of all, how mid prayer, tfillin at the forehead, he stared down the bodies of women walking past him en route to the bathroom.
Was I to give him a break, a man not used to people dressed with such attention to curvature? Or was he a misbehaved representative of a people, donned in external religious garb and defying the expectation that while praying, he not look at women with lust? A wise woman tells me, over and over, that 90% of what you feel is related to your own life in the past, and the issues therein, and 10% is related to reality as it happens in real time.
This man was a catalyst, a trigger for a year living in Israel unsure whether I was obligated to follow the laws laid out in front of me, or whether finding my own balance was permissible. When giving into the matrix of religion, secular values of gender roles don’t translate well. I don’t do mehitzas, and I only cover myself for the respect of the communities I enter. One guy told me early in the year that women’s clothing choices reveal how much self-respect they have. In other words, my low cut tank top and leggings were markers of some deep self-hatred.
I internalized the voices around me, the woman who told me she loves to sing but won’t do it walking home in fear of kol isha. I heard the honks I got on Shabbos; I knew what it meant when I didn’t count for a minyan. I learned, over and over again about the value of concealing beauty, of how the matriarchs nearly burned their people down with the sheer power of their looks. We are asked to go under arrest not because we are unworthy, not because we should be hidden, but because we are so exquisite that something might happen if too many men bear witness.
I can argue two sides, three, even five sides to every religious argument. But what this leaves me with is a lack of ownership and a myriad of contradicting emotions when faced with a large man outwardly declaring his relationship with G-d in a way that directly infringes upon my personal space. The Chassid on the plane forgot his siddur when he got off. I had ducked a minute or two before, a bit peeved as he repeatedly reached directly above me for access to his suitcase.
I had flashbacks to the whipping tallis, and was worried he would whack me in the head with his small black bag. He saw me shudder and duck and he unexpectedly looked down, directly into my eyes, and said, “I watch, don’t worry, I watch,” with a twinkle and a grin. He was suddenly a big puffy teddy bear with a heart of gold. Memory erasure is also a problem when in the company of G-d fearing, soul sparkling people. If the present moment is exquisite, then why bother resenting being shunned a few minutes prior?
He walked off at that point, tzitzis revealing a paunch, and turned when I called him. “Slicha!” I yelled. I tapped the Israeli man in front of me and asked him to yell in my place, a silent understanding between us that a man, not a woman, needed to address this guy. “Hey,” he said. And at the English my giant friend turned. “You forgot this,” I told him sheepishly, handing him the prayer book while making sure not to touch him. And again, he beamed, so wide, “Thank you, that is very kind.” And in my imagination, as much as I can find the ogre in a man who won’t let me crawl under his tallis and daven in the back of the plane alongside him, a man who uses religious law to corner me, I also conjured up a blessing, convinced that in praying and walling me out, he was asking G-d for the healing of my swollen leg.