Not in Kansas anymore

March 16 2007

I don't live far from O'Hare Airport, so normally I get to the airport about 90-100 minutes before an international flight.  Flying El Al, on the other hand, conjures so many preconceived notions that I allowed a whole extra hour.

Reputation precedes -- but even still, it's a disarming process (presumably by design).  The security questioning cut right to the chase -- what temple do you belong to?  Have you been to Israel before?  Is this a business trip?  What customers are you visiting?  Do you speak Hebrew?  Why not?  Can you read it?  What did I just write here?  What holidays do you celebrate at home?  How do you observe them?  What is your daughter's Hebrew name?  How long did the taxi driver have your luggage in his control?  

I flashed back to similar interrogations of the past.  When visiting Vienna years ago, I had to play the same kind of 20 questions to enter the City Synagogue.  And on my last visit to Israel, seven years ago, leaving Ben Gurion airport was just as intense.  There, I even endured random undercover security questioning while buying a slice of pizza in the cafeteria (with the same questions asked later at check-in).  But today is the first time I am asked to recite Jewish prayers to support my background.  I can't imagine Mexicana asking the same for a flight to Cancun.

Can I speak Hebrew?  Well, I would never say "yes", but the reality is that 25 years post bar-mitzvah, I retain just enough.  The flight attendants all speak to me in Hebrew first, though they're not to the couple who have their four children in business class.  I can order my Diet Coke, please, and say no, thank you, but choosing the beef stir-fry requires a switch to English.  The man next to me assures me it will "all come back", but he doesn't realize that my Hebrew studies never got me far enough to read without vowels.  And the Israelis write Hebrew without vowels.

The flight otherwise proceeds generally like any other.  We stop in Toronto, where the reboarding process is completed under the watchful eyes of two of the most intimidating policemen I've seen anywhere.  A fellow passenger brazenly steps in front of me to reboard, as if I were invisible. I hear conversations in Russian, German, Hebrew, English, and even Spanish.

It is a bit sobering to read the in-flight magazine, see their route map, and realize that El Al has to make some pretty large bypasses in order to fly anywhere east of Israel.  El Al flight paths to Mumbai, Bangkok, and Beijing all require going completely around their eastern neighbors.  I don't even want to get into the irony of the extra fuel burn.  It all shows that the world still has a long way to go for "mission accomplished".

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