Alaska flight 8 from Seattle is in a holding pattern over Newark. I’m in the dreaded middle seat, and about to engage in a minor act of theology.
The girl by the window — seventeen or so, dressed Seattle grunge in striped leggings, unhemmed denim skirt, and peasant blouse — sits with her legs drawn up under her like a child. And like a child, she’s getting bored. The article she’s been reading on and off the whole flight is practically in my lap, begging for comment. It’s in Hebrew, and it’s about the festival of Purim.
But instead of asking the question she expects — “What language is that?” — I ask why she’s reading about Purim since it’s still months away.
“You read Hebrew?” she says. I nod. She examines my face for traces of Semitism. “Are you Jewish?” I nod again. Reassured, she brightens up: “Do you light Shabbos candles?”
I groan, realizing too late that what I’d taken for Seattle teenage grunge is in fact Lubavitch teenage grunge. The followers of the Lubavitche rabbi, one of the largest Hassidic sects, are ardent proselytizers of “lost Jews,” and her question is the standard Lubavitch test of lostness (for women, that is — for men it’s “Do you lay tefiillin?”).
“No, I don’t light candles, but let’s not do the Lubavitch thing,” I say. No use, of course — she’s doing it already.
“Oh but you should try. You’d love it. It’s such a beautiful thing to do,” with the kind of enthusiasm most girls her age save for recommending a heavenly new networking site.
I put up a hand to ward off her insistence. “I didn’t say I didn’t know how; I said that I don’t.”
“But why would you not? It’s such a privilege — a very special woman’s privilege… ”
I don’t want to be privileged, I say. Equal rights means equal obligations. It’s a matter of both respect and self-respect. “I cannot tell you, for instance, how deeply insulting it was to not even be counted as part of the minyan at my own mother’s funeral.”
I know this is unfair on multiple counts. Using my dead mother, for a start, is a cheap demagogic ploy. Even as I do it, I’m somewhat ashamed of myself, but that unyielding badgering has set me off.
Her reaction takes me by surprise, though. As her face registers deep shock, it occurs to me that this teenager has probably never imagined that her own mother might die.
“But that’s terrible,” she says. “That’s… awful. ” She sits up straight as the next word comes to her: “That’s… wrong!” And she clearly means it.
“Yes, it is,” I reply, “but that’s orthodox Jewish law.”
She squirms in her seat, frowning as she seeks a way out. And then: “Maybe when the Messiah comes, he’ll guide us to a better way.”
“Maybe, but I think you should bear one more thing in mind.”
“When the messiah comes, he may be a she…”
Her eyes open wide. Her jaw goes slack. She blinks, shakes her head, and suddenly finds that the aerial view of northern New Jersey demands her full attention.
Have I blown her mind? For a few moments, maybe. Maybe even until we land and her parents meet her at the gate and take her back into the safety of the fold. But that sweet, deeply felt honesty of “That’s wrong!” will stay with me — and maybe it will stay with her too.