I’m in airports a lot these days. A lot a lot. Getting anywhere from Eastern Washington, in the age of regional carriers means lots of legs to get to my final destination, making air travel something of an airport crawl without the really good beer. I’ve been stuck in Salt Lake Airport on Christmas, stranded in Minneapolis multiple times due to weather or mechanical trouble, on the tarmac in Spokane waiting for an overbooked deicer to get to our plane, and of course there was that time in San Francisco when we were told we’d missed our flight even though it was an hour until takeoff. I continue to stand by my United boycott after that bull hockey. Still, as the 14-hour drive home from SFO pointed out, flying is faster than ground travel. And because I often have faraway places to go (I mean, seriously, everything is far from Walla Walla), I wind up spending copious hours of time in airports. So perhaps it’s unsurprising that the more time I spend in airports, the greater the opportunity for unusual things to happen to me while I’m there.
Last week I had a training in Kent, Washington, to attend, along with one of my staff. Quickest flight I ever experience anymore, a 40-something minute jaunt over to SeaTac, followed by a 4-mile drive. It was as dry and mind-numbing as most trainings, except that it was vaguer than usual, given that nobody in health care still knows how the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act is going to change state regulations come January. But we stayed attentive and did our best to absorb whatever information streamed over to us. And then we had a quick dinner next to the airport, and a long wait before boarding. And that is when things got funky.
Now then, in the interests of full disclosure, there was a time in college when I called myself born again. I was young, searching for meaning after a dozen years of Catholic school and instruction, and I wanted a conduit to spirituality that didn’t include a third party. It fizzled out shortly after joining the Campus Crusade for Christ because I wasn’t interested in proselytizing to other young people before I’d answered big questions for myself, and I wasn’t a subscriber to their party line on many theological issues. God is like gravity, he’s there but we can’t see him? Really? I was not a fan of Christianity for Dummies. And soon after my disillusionment, I was across the political spectrum and calling myself a queermo. So it goes.
Fast forward to the C Concourse at SeaTac. My coworker and I saw an Orthodox Jewish man standing across the way from us, wearing a large black hat and traditional overcoat, and holding a hat box. I noted that this was the first time in memory that I had seen this far west on the continent. And then we got into talking about other things, forgetting about him. It had been a long day. A few minutes later the man came up to us.
“Excuse me, but are either of you Jewish,” he asked.
The family mythology is that our mother converted to marry her first husband, which Mom denies but which my two siblings energetically insist is true. She now goes to a Methodist church, and of course I’m a lapsed Catholic, but hey, I grew up in New Jersey which was something like one of the largest Jewish communities in the country. I may have celebrated Easter, but I know the Dreidel song, too. But truth be told I don’t think I’m technically Jewish, unless a woman’s conversion is also the automatic emigration of her future children, too.
I said yes. Moron that I am.
My staffer looked surprised. Makes sense, of course, because he’s a reasonable person and I am anything but.
The man’s eyes lit up, and he burst into a smile just as if I’d told him we were long-lost brothers finally reunited.
I think he started speaking in Hebrew. I considered nodding, but didn’t want to communicate in any way that I was comprehending what he was saying, because then we would be off to the races. The Jewish races. Which I don’t know where those go.
“Sorry,” I said. “What do you want?” I should tell him I’m not really Jewish. He asked me, in return, what made me Jewish.
Probably that would not be a good time to tell him how much I enjoy whitefish salad, so I told him about my mother instead. This conversation was getting away from me.
“Oh, if your mother is Jewish then congratulations, you are a Jew!”
Maybe I was going to win a prize! In addition to being one of the chosen, of course. I mean, that’s the jackpot, right?
He asked if I’d been bar mitzvah’d. I told him oh, well, I went through twelve years of Catholic school. I was baptized and confirmed.
He looked confused. In addition to his hat box, he was also holding some dark blue fuzzy arm band-like thing, with Hebrew embroidered into it. He asked if I wanted to be bar mitzvah’d. He said he could do it right there, in the airport.
Now I was worried. This was going to a new place I hadn’t anticipated.
I had many ways of ending the conversation: My Mom’s conversion wasn’t verified, I’m a full-on shiksa (male gentile), and oh, I’m transsexual. Good thing this guy wasn’t asking if I’d ever had a bris. “Gee, is that what went wrong down there, Mr. Jewry? I think my moyel was myopic!”
I wanted to be more gentle than that, though.
“I think I’d have to discuss that with my wife first,” I said sheepishly. My coworker, who knows all of the above, chuckled.
“Well, you should be proud of your Jewish heritage,” said the man, who now looked very young to me.
I nodded. I told him I was all kinds of proud of my heritage.
He asked if I knew that Passover was starting the following Monday. I assured him I did. Why not add another lie to this list?
Then we started talking about Walla Walla. No, there’s no synagogue in town, I said, but there is a small temple. I laughed and said I knew all six people who went to it. This is where Susanne would have kicked me to start shutting up, had she been in proximity. Maybe I rely too much on her elbowing and my own cutoff valve has atrophied. I should be more self-reliant about closing my trap. Where’s my frontal lobe when I need it?
“Do you have any matzoh in town,” he asked. I nodded.
“And gefilte fish,” I said. Now I was really over the line into absurdity. I hate gefilte fish. If I were stranded on a desert island with nothing but gefilte fish, I would drink seawater until I died just so I wouldn’t have to pop open a jar.
“Oh gefilte fish, good!”
We were really talking about Passover food. We could have been talking about brisket. I enjoy a good Seder brisket, for sure.
“Well, enjoy Passover,” he said, handing me a card. Because I don’t know, we would never see each other again, so why not have a card for when I’d like to schedule that bris?
He walked away, presumably to perform other bar mitzvahs as requested.
My coworker turned to me.
“I felt so left out!”