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February 3, 2010

Tefillin the friendly skies

When a jet from LaGuardia bound for Louisville made an emergency landing in Philadelphia because a Jewish teenager was praying, New Yorkers wanted to know the answer to one question: There are Jews in Kentucky? Meanwhile, people in Louisville demanded an answer to a question of their own: You can fly nonstop to New York?

But once that was settled, there were plenty more questions to ask. Unfortunately, coverage of the incident was sketchy, vaguely critical of both the flight attendant and the young man involved, and highly dramatic in the way all stories need to be if they hope to grab the attention away from death, destruction and the heartbreak of erectile dysfunction. Fortunately, when the Internet shuts down an industry, it opens up a window, in this case KosherTube (www.koshertube.com), which is an excellent resource for goyim who’ve slacked on the Chaim Potok oeuvre.

The Jan. 20 incident on US Airways Flight 3079 began when Caleb Liebowitz, a 17-year-old Orthodox Jewish boy, began using tefillin as part of his daily prayer ritual. Tefillin are small black boxes containing verses from the Torah. KosherTube’s enlightening videos explain how observant Jewish men use tefillin daily to pray. Using the tefillin’s leather straps, a believer attaches one box to his arm adjacent to his heart and the other to his head, and wraps the leather straps around his arm while praying.

Those who pray with tefillin say the ritual helps them feel closer to all people and to God. Unfortunately, on an airplane in the age of underwear bombs, it might look a little threatening. A flight attendant unfamiliar with tefillin alerted the cabin, and before you could say “Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab,” the plane was on the ground in Philadelphia, and FBI agents were inspecting everybody for combustible Spanx.

Of course, praying and flying have always gone together like turbulence and barf bags. Passengers understand that — given the unlikely miracle that 1 million pounds of steel, recycled air and tiny bottles of Mr. Smirnoff’s finest hand sanitizer could actually get off the ground — prayer and prayer alone could keep them aloft. But gravity is just one of many theories prayer can overcome. Prayer (when combined with early booking) is known to help score an aisle seat away from the plane’s lavatory, for example. In some cases, prayer can even get the woman from Tulsa sitting next to you to shut up about her grandson’s recital for five freaking minutes.

So you could hardly blame anyone for praying on an airplane. Strapping on leather equipment to assist in the exercise is perhaps another matter. But if you do choose to pray on an airplane and if you choose to use an uncommon accessory like tefillin and a flight attendant asks you what you’re doing — and here’s the main lesson from this episode — it’s probably best not to say “praying.”

On the ground, praying is a verb that rarely gets you into trouble. In fact, it’s the kind of thing that can get you out of trouble when you are committing, say, a crime against nature. For example, suppose you are a teenager and you’ve locked yourself in your bedroom to engage in some sort of indecorous behavior and your mom knocks on the door and says, “What’s going on in there?” A good answer would be, “I’m praying.”

However, on an airplane, you always do the opposite. If you’re praying and a flight attendant says, “What are you doing?” you should say, “I’m putting my tray table in the upright and locked position” or “I’m browsing SkyMall for a GPS sausage” or “I’m joining the mile-high club — all by myself!” Basically you should say anything other than, “I’m praying.” Similarly, on terra firma if you say “… under there” and someone says, “Under where?” it’s perfectly fine to scream, “Made ya say ‘underwear!’” On an airplane that is not OK.

In some small way, this episode restores my faith in post-9/11 humanity. By all accounts, Caleb Liebowitz was a polite, respectful young man quietly practicing his faith. Consider: He would have been deemed a normal teenager if he’d been going for his Killing Spree medal in “Halo 3” on his laptop instead of praying with tefillin. In hindsight, the flight attendant and crew overreacted, but if there had been a real threat, they would be national heroes. And the FBI reportedly treated everyone with respect and dignity. True, we haven’t completely figured out post-9/11 safety, privacy and religious freedom, but we seem to be getting closer.