I was on a flight from Boston to Newark. I was wearing a kippah—I mention that because it’s germane to this story. Sometimes I wear a baseball cap when I travel, but this time, for some reason, I left it behind.
The plane was full and I was stuck in the middle seat of the emergency row (I hate the middle seat, but I love the emergency row). I figured during the short hop to Jersey I could keep my head down in the Gabriel Allon thriller I’d bought in the airport, and before I would know it, we’d have arrived.
The plane took off uneventfully, and I was at the point in the novel where the Israeli superspy was called out of retirement to save the world again when there was a tap on my shoulder. Looking up, I saw the flight attendant, a tall, delicate woman in her young thirties. Why was she noodging me?
“Excuse me,” she said. “Are you learned, or merely observant?”
Huh? What kind of question is that?
“Are you learned, or merely observant?”
I mumbled something about not being sure I was either, but trying to be both. (There’s a Hasidic story about Rebbe Naftali Tzvi Horowitz of Ropshitz, who was once approached by a cop who asked, “Who do you work for and what are you doing here?” The rebbe, taken aback by the hidden spiritual implications of the question, asked the man if he would agree to follow him around asking that question all day—as a reminder! I wasn’t so glib, so I simply responded:) “What are you really trying to ask me?”
She said she had a question about Judaism. She asked, “Is it true that if I’m Jewish, I have to quit my job with the airline?”
Now, I’m in the middle seat, and we’re all flying cattle class anyway, so this truly bizarre question is taking place over the lap of at least one other passenger in very close quarters. I told her that as far as I knew, there was nothing in the Torah or Talmud that prohibited one from being a flight attendant for American Airlines. She thanked me and continued up the aisle.
For the next few minutes, I found it difficult to care about whether or not Gabriel Allon would set aside his paintbrushes to command the Mossad, so I got up and went to the galley at the front of the cabin, where she was alone. I asked her to explain a little more.
“My fiancé is Jewish,” she said, “and I’m not. I’m studying for conversion with a Chabad rabbi in Los Angeles. He told me that not only must a Jew keep kosher, but it is prohibited for a Jew to serve non-kosher food to another Jew, even inadvertently. So he said if I became Jewish, I’d have to quit my job, because part of my duties includes serving food to passengers.” She was obviously emotionally torn up about this prospect.
I’m not judgmental about others’ Jewish choices, but this woman really needed someone to talk to. So I listened. She said, “You know, this process has been so hard. My fiancé isn’t Orthodox, but we wanted to do this with a Chabad rabbi because… you know… we wanted to do it right.” (My bowels twisted and I bit my lip, but said nothing.)
But it became clear that this teacher was abusing his student. She said, “A few weeks back, my fiancé and I decided to make a real Shabbat evening experience, the whole thing—services, dinner, just being together and not doing any work. We went to the local Conservative synagogue—it was closest—and we just had the most incredible time, singing the prayers and joining in with a Jewish community. I couldn’t wait to tell my rabbi. When I saw him a few days later, I told him all about it and how wonderful it was. He said to me, ‘You went to a Conservative synagogue? I just added four more months onto your studies.’”
Her eyes welled up, and my heart broke a little for her. I said, “I want you to know, there are many kinds of rabbis and many ways of being Jewish.” She nodded, thanked me for listening, and we had to return to our seats.
But I couldn’t stop thinking about her, and about this L.A. rabbi who was beating her up emotionally. I felt awful, because she’s supposed to be falling in love with Judaism and everything Jewish, yet here she is, guilt-ridden and hurt and filled with ambivalence. And I thought about that question, “Are you learned or merely observant?”, and how she asked me simply because I was wearing a kippah this time.
The flight ended, she was making the connection to LA and home, and of course we’d never see each other again. So I figured I would make a final gesture. As we started that disembarking ritual—“…bye now, b’bye, good-bye, bye now…”—I slipped my business card into her hand. “Listen,” I said, “I know a couple of really good rabbis in L.A.”
I don’t know what became of her, or if she became a Jew, and what kind of spiritual life she might have discovered for herself. But I hope she found her way Home.
And I think of Ruth the Moabite, who thousands of years ago clung to her mother-in-law Naomi and said, “Wherever you go, I will go; wherever you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your G-d, my G-d.” I wonder sometimes, if Ruth were navigating our Jewish world today, whether or not she would ever make it inside the gates. Thank G-d she did, and we celebrate her legacy, and those who made a journey like hers, this week. She, too, made it Home.
The Book of Ruth is read on Shavuot, which begins on Saturday night, June 8.