She was pleasant enough as she got her luggage in place and we found our seats. There was no way I could anticipate what would come next. Gum cracking. One. Straight. Hour. Of gum cracking, as I helplessly sat there – a prisoner of noise (popping) pollution – tethered to a seat 30,000 feet in the sky. I kept having the conversation in my head, “Pardon me, but I’m allergic to grating noises, would you mind spitting that stuff out?!!” But there simply was no tactful way to say what needed to be said, so I bit my tongue as she cracked her gum.
I tried listening to music, but there was nothing coming out of the earphone port. “How has it not lost its flavor yet?” I groaned to myself. But then, thank God, the snack cart arrived, and she traded the gum for a bag of pretzels. I thought it would be smooth
sailing flying from there, but when she finished the pretzels she took out a sucking candy. A chorus of “suck, suck, slurp; suck, suck, slurp” repeated itself until the candy was finished. (Note to self: pack earplugs next time!)
I’ve been traveling more and more often for speaking engagements, and although there are some less pleasant parts to the trips, I love meeting new people and spreading inspiration to new places. But my talks don’t always begin or end at the destination I’m flying to. Sometimes they also happen on the way there and back.
Like on a recent trip, the driver who took me to the airport was wearing a yarmulke, but as I soon found out, he had been moving away from observance for years. His faith had been shaken by tragedies he had experienced both personally and ones he had seen others endure. As I explained to him, there are two ways that we can approach suffering in life. The first way is to assume the world is random and pointless and that tragedy strikes with no warning and no meaning. This is a world that I refuse to believe in, I told him.
The other approach is to believe that there is a plan and a purpose behind everything in life, including the hard times, even though they don’t seem to make sense and often strike without warning. “For instance,” I went on, “I don’t believe that my sitting here, talking to you about emunah (faith) right before Rosh Hashana happened by accident.” I could tell the driver was listening. His grandfather had held onto his observance even through the Holocaust. Perhaps it wasn’t too late for him to return to his roots too.
On the flight back home, I sat next to a gentleman who thankfully didn’t make any sounds except for the pleasant conversation we were having. I never know who I’ll be seated next to on a plane, but I figure it’s a great opportunity to break down stereotypes about religious Jews. More often than not I get seated next to less observant Jews (even though, statistically speaking that shouldn’t happen in a place like America) who I try to leave with a more positive impression about Orthodox Judaism.
As the gentleman and I spoke about why we were away from home, the conversation naturally led to what I do, which led to the story of my childhood existential crisis and my search for meaning. Apparently, I was the first observant Jew this man had ever spoken to. He seemed to believe in God, and noted that although neither he nor his wife were religious, they wanted to pass some sort of meaning and values onto their sons and let them know where they came from.
He was raised Catholic, but his wife was raised with nothing he explained. I wondered why that was. Most people have religion at some point in the family. Turns out his wife’s mother’s parents were both Jewish. “Aha,” I thought to myself, “so there is a Jewish connection after all.” Did my plane neighbor know that his wife and two adorable sons (he showed me a picture) were actually Jewish by Jewish law? He knew.
So why did the Judaism get lost then, I wanted to know. Well, apparently the wife’s grandfather was a Holocaust survivor and he had only one dying wish for his daughter (this guy’s mother-in-law) – the Judaism should die with him. It was because he was Jewish that Hitler had gone after him. But if they stamped the Jewishness out, then his children and his children’s children would be safe the grandfather reasoned.
My eyes filled up with tears as heard his explanation. I could feel a weight in my chest, so I took a deep breath. “I understand why your wife’s grandfather had that reaction,” I began, “he went through unimaginable atrocities and was targeted because he was a Jew. But by ending the Jewishness in the family – well, Hitler winds up winning, now doesn’t he?” The gentleman listened, but didn’t have much to say.
And then we both started reading. The conversation seemed like it had more or less run its course. But as we got up to grab our bags, I pulled out my business card and handed it to him. “If your wife or sons are ever curious to know more about their Jewish side, they can check out this website.” He thanked me and we parted ways.
I don’t know if that card got crumpled up and tossed into a garbage can or if it will one day make its way into his wife’s hands. I don’t know if the driver in the yarmulke took my words to heart and decided to chart a new course in the new year or simply ignored me. But since I believe in a world where everything happens for a reason and nothing occurs by chance, I try to never miss an opportunity to say the words that need to be said when I meet someone new. (Unless, of course, the person is making obnoxious noises.)