Black Boxes and Leather…

On this past week’s episode of Hey! That’s My Hummus! you may have heard me mention a recent news story about an Alaska Airlines flight from Mexico City to L.A. which went into panic mode. The cause for this?  Three Jewish passengers, in mid-flight, took out and started putting on tefillin, which are ritual prayer accoutrements.  The flight attendants observed these passengers doing something out of the ordinary (standing up soon after takeoff) with something out of the ordinary (the aforementioned tefillin) in a language with was out of the ordinary (Hebrew with a bit of Aramaic thrown in).  The plane landed safely at LAX, greeted by US Customs, Border Patrol and FBI agents. The passengers explained themselves and were allowed to go along their merry way. Alaska Airlines has since apologized for the whole incident.

This is not the first time that this has happened, and it certainly won’t be the last.

Some people blame the airline for their ignorance of Jewish tradition. Some blame the specific passengers in question for engaging in behavior which went against the grain of what was considered normal. Some hold the heightened fear of air terror as the culprit here. Although I would agree that changes on the part of each of these three components may have prompted a very different experience which would not have ended in a security alert, I choose to point my finger at something else entirely:

This would have never happened if the airlines were still serving free meals on short flights.

Think about it: our children are growing up in an environment where exposure to the term “kosher airline meal” is foreign to them. Since free meals aren’t served on most domestic flights (and since the ones they offer for a premium are not specifically kosher), we’re no longer sensitized to the differences between many of our fellow passengers. And with that,  we automatically cut off the notion that people who look, talk or act different are just like us. And we have many things in common. Such as the fact that the airline food in front of us, whether kosher or not, will probably suck.

Okay. It’s a bit of a stretch.  But I think the environment for flying post-9/11 has put people in a frenzy to point out anything and anyone that appears to be out of place. For some, out-of-place could be anything unexperienced, such as a Jew putting on tefilin. Or a Muslim engaged in Salat (traditional prayer). Or two adults of the same sex holding hands as a couple. A diabetic injecting herself with insulin. A family dressed differently speaking in a foreign language. The list goes on and on. We’re asked to report anything suspicious, and we do.  But we need to distinguish between “suspicious” and “different.” I don’t have any great solutions to this — aside from learning and asking questions.

When I fly with my wife, we have our own ritual of reciting Tefilat HaDerech, a short, Hebrew prayer which focuses on a pleasant journey free from challenges. In recent years, I’ve noticed that we’ve instinctively been less conspicuous about this ritual. We don’t huddle together to read the words, hunched over as if we’re planning something. We don’t say the words in Hebrew out loud lest we garner attention from that rare individual who might think the worst.  It doesn’t bother me, though, nor would the thought of me explaining myself with a smile.

There are those in the Jewish community who have specified that if these travelers wanted to put on tefilin, they could have done so before or after the 4-hour flight rather than do so on the plane. Obviously these passengers disagreed. But I do feel that a great deal of the fears could have been calmed by a “heads up” explanation.  I’m just engaging in my ritual prayer. These are just black boxes with parchment inside, and I’ll wrap them on my arm with these leather straps. I may stand up and sit down, but I’ll be as respectful as I possibly can. After I’m done, I’m happy to answer any questions while we both enjoy our delicious airline meals…

Well, I suppose I can dream about that last part, can’t I?

To conclude, I’d like to share a video. It’s of stand-up comedian and author Joel Chasnoff with a short bit about airport security and tefilin. Go ahead and watch; I’ll footnote the references after the video:

(iPhone? Click here.)

(1) Many traditional Jews with attempt to engage in prayer with a quorum of ten adults (some specify ten men).

(2) The age of a Jewish adult bound by the Jewish commandments is 13. (Some hold that Jewish women come of age at 12.)



  1. Sybil LawMarch 21, 2011

    Hahaha – that video was awesome.

    You’d think, though, that they could’ve just ASKED the Jewish passengers what they were doing, right?
    Common sense is missing these days.

    1. shinyMarch 22, 2011

      That it is. I think people are too afraid to engage others. For fear of offending them. Or getting shot. Whatever. I just think that people need to get over it and realize that most folks in this world are not out to get you.

  2. [email protected]March 21, 2011

    I have davened with my tefillin on planes before. And long before 911 I told people around me what was going on. It wasn’t because I was afraid of frightening people but because the damn seats are so small I wanted them to know I wasn’t trying to whip them with the leather straps. 😉

    1. shinyMarch 22, 2011

      The last time I davened (prayed for those of you not in the know!) with tefillin on a plane was on an El Al flight back from Israel. Needless to say, the only thing conspicuous about me was that I didn’t look like the rest of the men at the back of the plane with whom I was praying.

      I have, however, put on tefillin in the airport. which, I assume, is preferable to doing it in-flight when one is able to do so. (I don’t take that many long flights, nor am I one to lay tefillin on a daily basis.)

      I applaud you for letting your fellow passengers know what you were doing.

  3. [email protected]March 23, 2011

    I certainly don’t daven every day anymore but I have wrapped my arms on planes, trains and boats. Some of that comes from camp experiences as a camper and counselor.

    We did get some funny looks.


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