Night flight to Tel Aviv. I had the choice of flying either Continental or El Al, and I’d opted for El Al, for the full Israeli experience. El Al flies out of Terminal 4, which services many of the Middle Eastern airlines, including Egyptair, Emirates, Kuwait, and Royal Jordanian. It’s my first trip to the Middle East, and I’ve never flown from Terminal 4 before. When the car service drops me off at Departures, immediately, even on the sidewalk, I notice a difference. It’s the same scene you’d find in front of any terminal at JFK, harried travelers wrestling suitcases from the trunks of New York yellow cabs, but it feels foreign to me. Different. Different faces, different clothes. Like I’m already in another part of the world.
Inside, I head for the El Al ticket counter, but run into an obstacle. An improbable row of black metal music stands blocks the way. There are maybe five or six of them, spaced at intervals of about ten feet, and airline personnel are directing passengers towards these. I fail to parse the scenario. The music stands are weirdly incongruous, like they’re waiting for a woodwind quartet to show up and play a little Telemann or Bach. Apparently, though, it’s not a chamber music concert, but rather some kind of security check. Even though I understand this, my mind still balks. The music stands seem too flimsy for the purpose of security, and standing next to each are very young people in uniforms, but the uniforms, too, are underwhelming. Casual and kind of sporty in a utilitarian kind of way, and the young people wearing them have the somewhat laid back appearance of scouts, or camp counsellors, or UPS deliverymen. They don’t seem like security officials.
I’d been warned about stringent Israeli security on El Al. I knew that there were going to be armed security police patrolling the terminal, that armed undercover air marshals would be on board the plane, and that my luggage would be put through a special decompression chamber designed to simulate the drop in air pressure that would detonate a bomb with a barometric fuse. I’d been told to get to the airport three hours in advance, and I’d received a security pre-clearance, arranged by my hosts at the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies and the Heschel Center for Environmental Learning and Leadership, who were sponsoring my trip. They sent me a PDF file of a badge and instructed me to print it out and carry with me, and so now I am holding this sheet of paper in my hand as I approach the music stand to which I've been directed.
Two bland-faced youths in uniform watch me. When I’m still about 15 feet away, one of them seems to recognize me and breaks into a big enthusiastic smile.
“So, what kind of writer are you?” he calls out.
“Huh?” I’m still too far away for him to see the printout I’m carrying, and besides, there’s no mention of my profession on the badge. I never submitted a photo for the pre-clearance process. So how does he know who I am, never mind that I’m a writer?
“What kind of books do you write?” he asks, as I come to a halt by his music stand.
“Uh…novels?" I answer.
“Yes, yes,” he says. “I know. But what kind of novels? Do you write romances?” He sounds hopeful.
“Well, not exactly. I mean, they are novels, after all, so there’s some romance in them but I wouldn’t call them romances exactly…”
As I prattle on with my explanation, he smiles somewhat ruefully and slips away, putting an end to a conversation that never really was. His partner takes over, asking me detailed questions about who packed my bags and had I left them unattended at any time, etc., and eventually he lets me pass. I check in at the ticket counter, still baffled by the exchange.
The departure lounge for the El Al red-eye to Tel Aviv is like nothing I’ve ever experienced. I’ve never been in an airline departure lounge where everyone else is identifiably religious. There are Catholic nuns in habits, and Protestant pastors in tidy little dog collars. There are hooded Armenian priests and Dominican friars in brown tunics with ropes around their waists. There are Muslim women in hijab and men in turbans and tunics. There are Jews of all persuasions: Ultra Orthodox women in long skirts and snoods and Orthodox men in broad brimmed Homburgs and long black frockcoats covering the tassles of their tzitzis; Conservative and Reform Jews sporting minimalist kippah; and Secular Jews, conspicuous for the lack of identifying vestments, but religious-seeming nonetheless, because in Israel, even Secular seems like a religious denomination. And finally, there are the somewhat generic and nondescript large-bodied American Christians, dressed in bland colored casual wear and identifiable primarily by the plastic tour group tags that they wear on strings around their necks. They huddle together, looking pale and nervous and excited.
I’m excited, too. I’m going to Israel to give a keynote address at the First Israeli Food and Sustainability Conference, but I have a secret agenda for going to the Holy Land. I want to try to learn something about religion.
Let me explain. I’m getting ready to ordain as a Zen Buddhist priest next year, and recently two things have begun to dawn on me: one, that that Zen Buddhism is a religion; and two, that for most people, “priest” is a pretty loaded word. This may seem incredibly obtuse and dull-witted of me, but I can defend myself. I was raised by vehemently secular social scientists, an anthropologist and a linguist, and I grew up knowing nothing about religion. In our family, religion was something that, as anthropologists, we might study, and liturgy was something that, as linguists, we might analyze or parse, but, God forbid, we would never practice these kinds of things. Religion was something that other people did, and my parents were kind of pathetic when it came to ritual of any kind. We couldn’t even do Christmas right.
So I grew up with no operational framework for understanding what religion might mean to others. To me, growing up in the west, Zen Buddhism always seemed more like a philosophy, or even a psychology or neuroscience, and I’d made the decision to ordain much in the way one might make the decision to go to graduate school. I’d been studying intensively for many years, and I wanted to intensify my commitment to my discipline. Somehow (and here’s the incredibly obtuse part) I’d managed to spend hundreds of hours in silent meditation, chanting sutras and services, lighting incense and ringing bells, vowing and confessing, wearing vestments and prostrating in front of altars, without quite getting it, that I was participating in a real (gasp!) organized religion.
The realization has come as kind of a shock, a betrayal of my secular roots even, and it’s begun to occur to me that if I’m going to go through with this ordination, I better learn more about the larger field of religion, and not just my practice of Zen Buddhism. So, as the dutiful offspring of academics, I’ve embarked on a crash course of study in world religious cultures and beliefs, and the Holy Land seems like a good place to start. I just finished reading two memoirs by Karen Armstrong, a former nun turned religious scholar, about her life in and after the convent, and found them riveting but also quite disturbing. I have a copy of her book about Jerusalem in my carry-on bag.
So this is what I’m occupied with in the midnight departure lounge of the El Al flight to Tel Aviv. Anthropological field work. The departure lounge is full. Furtively I study my fellow passengers. I feel conspicuously secular, very much the odd one out, nervously fingering my mala, which was a gift from my Zen teacher, and which I always wear…oh, right…religiously around my wrist. I push up my sleeve, in case anyone happens to be looking.
When the time comes to board the aircraft, the youthful security officer with literary tastes is standing at the end of the jetway with a clipboard in his hand.
“I hope you have a wonderful trip,” he said, checking me off. “I hope you find much to write about in Israel.”
“Thank you,” I said. “And, by the way, I just have to ask. How did you know I’m a writer?”
“Oh,” he shrugged. “We have this information.”
It was not really an answer.
“I thought maybe you were reading my mind,” I persisted, jokingly. “I thought it was telepathy.”
He didn’t smile. “We are Israeli,” he replied. “We do not need telepathy.”
I wish I could say that this made me feel safe. I should have felt safe. Between the stringency of Israeli security and the volume and diversity of religious faith represented here on this Boeing 747, we pretty much had all bases covered. By anybody’s reckoning, this flight should be amongst the safest in the world. The chances of us crashing or being hijacked seem slim, but still, I feel uneasy, and it takes me a while to figure out why.
I don’t remember much about the flight, only that it was long, the food was terrible (note to self: never order the asian vegetarian option on an El Al flight). A young Orthodox Jewish man in front of me was perusing a glossy magazine filled with numerous photographs of bearded Orthodox Jewish men, wearing enormous fur shtreimlech on their heads. I was sitting in what appeared to be the Orthodox Jewish quarter of the economy class, and it had taken quite a while to get seated because every one of my neighbors seemed dissatisfied with the seats that had been assigned, and they were all trying to negotiate better ones, so there was a lot of shouting back and forth in both Yiddish and Hebrew. Even after the plane started to move toward the runway, there were still passengers in frockcoats standing in the aisles, refusing to sit down.
The young man with the magazine was traveling with an ancient patriarch of impressive girth and stature and a massively long white beard. He’d been one of the last to be seated on account of the large carry-on suitcase he was hauling up and down the aisle, trying to stash in an overhead compartment. There was much fuss with these suitcases amongst the male Jewish Orthodoxy during the embarkation, and midway through the flight, I discovered why. They needed access to their contents, to the tefillin and tallits and Torahs and books for prayers, which they conducted in the narrow aisles of the economy section, and also in clusters at the rear of the plane, blocking access to the toilets. I remembered a story that an Israeli friend, who is a Secular, told me about how, once, she had gotten stuck in an airplane washroom on an El Al flight. She'd flushed the toilet, washed her hands, and opened the door to leave, and ran smack into the middle of a tight quorum of Orthodox men, davening and shukkeling in the narrow passageway near the galley of the aircraft. One of them raised his eyes from his prayerbook and frowned at her, wagging his finger and shaking his head, which set his peyos swinging. She retreated obediently back into the toilet, where she proceeded to kill time by cleaning the stall, wiping the mirror and all the surfaces, and tidying the roll of toilet paper. Some minutes passed before the absurdity of the situation hit her, at which point she slammed open the door and forced her way through the obdurate and disapproving circle and returned to her seat, shaking with outrage. When she told me the story, she marveled at the authority she so readily relinquished to the male religious figure, ceding to him the power to chasten, intimidate, and reduce her to an obedient girl cleaning the public toilet.
And that’s when it hit me, what it was that made me so uneasy about the tight Israeli security apparatus and this flight full of the faithful. The fact is, I have always been uneasy in the presence of cops and believers, and this anxiety stems from a fundamental problem I have with authority, particularly the kind of authority that sees itself as absolute. I grew up in a generation that was influenced by the Sixties, but that’s only part of the explanation. This problem with authority is also peculiar to my vocation.
Vladimir Nabokov, in his anti-totalitarian novel, Bend Sinister, wrote “Curiosity is insubordination in its purest form.” I like this statement a lot, and I feel it says something important about my job as a writer. As a writer, it’s my job to be curious, and moreover as an author, it’s my duty to question authority, certainly my own, but also the authority of others. Authors have some insight into the workings of authority, and I suspect it’s in our nature to be insubordinate. So I’m naturally suspicious of any person, or power, or government, or god who claims authority, particularly those who inspire righteousness and zealotry amongst their followers or functionaries. Religions and nation states are the worst offenders, which is why my radar gets triggered on a flight like this one.
So, to answer, belatedly, the young security officer’s professed hope for my travels: Yes, thank you. I feel pretty sure that this visit to Israel, a nation state defined by a religion, will give me much to write about, and I hope that along the way I will gain some insight into my personal questions about belief and faith and religious vocation as well. Because the question dogs me: if I have such a problem with authority, and if I’m still so easily triggered by the presence of officials and devotees, how, then, can I ordain as a priest, invested with the authority of a lineage, and serve as a functionary of an organized religion?