I was on the plane to Israel with my college cohort. Now, you have to understand that this was not just a run-of-the-mill trip to Israel, if such a thing exists. This was the trip, the culmination and consummation of our college education. We had spent the last semester and a half studying Israel’s geography, geology, archaeology, people groups, cultures, and languages. This trip was the payoff.
Before the payoff, however, came an eleven-hour flight, the majority of which I spent searching through the available in-flight movies, trying to find the film that would properly prepare my heart for Israel.
Batman Begins? Nah…
Ooh, Thor 2!
As I watched this edifying cinema, I also looked around the plane for previews, not of upcoming movies, but of the upcoming culture I was about to enter. Most tellingly, at certain intervals, several Orthodox men began to get up, put on their phylacteries, and pray.
As they prayed, they stood in the aisles of the plane. Seat belt signs be danged; no flight attendants dared correct them. The one who stood out most to me, though, was a man whose name I later learned was Daniel. He was younger than the rest, there with his wife and child. It was the child who drew me into conversation, a five-month old with blue eyes, staring at me and smiling. Daniel told me his name was Shalom.
“Come again?” I asked.
“Shalom,” Daniel repeated. “Like peace.”
And so we talked.
“Are you visiting or is this home for you?” I asked him.
“That’s an interesting question,” he mused. Apparently he and his wife, Anna, had lived in Israel for a spell of nine years or so, had moved to America for the last two years, and were now returning to Israel for a visit.
“It’s always home,” he added.
I grunted, hoping to communicate understanding and empathy.
“How about you?” he asked me. “Are you here on birthright?”
“No,” I responded.
“Oh. Are you a Jew?”
I had spent the last school year becoming a Jew-wannabe fanboy. This was the highest compliment he could have paid me.
“No,” I said, smiling, “I’m here with my college.”
So we talked some more on the nature of my program. Thankfully, the plane landed just as we had emptied ourselves of conversational topics. Everyone in the plane, myself included, began to gather their things. Once Anna had her carry-on, she reached out to Daniel for Shalom. After Daniel had given her the baby, I shook his hand, telling him what a pleasure it had been to meet him. I went to shake Anna’s free hand, but her response was to wave, putting her palm up and smiling, nonetheless avoiding contact. Daniel laughed.
My mind raced through my readings of To Be a Jew. What had I done wrong?
Dang it, Rabbi Donin, you didn’t prepare me for this!
“Oh, right. That makes sense,” I said to Anna, laughing along with Daniel and pretending to understand.
“You’ll learn,” Daniel chuckled.
I found out later from one of my professors that it’s culturally taboo for an Orthodox woman to be touched by a man who is not her family. In hindsight, she was probably holding Shalom for my sake, to avoid my embarrassment. Thanks, Anna, but this American’s a bit too friendly to be stopped by mere babies.
It was my first ever breach of Jewish cultural norms. I quickly shook it off and proceeded to brag to my classmates about how a Jew thought I was Jewish.
In the past, fellow Christians have told me that the Jewish people sadden them, a group so close to the land and heritage of the Bible, and so far away from its fullness in Christ. I can understand, but I can’t relate. During my time in Israel I was delighted by the Jewish people, who were worshiping my God long before I was. I enjoyed learning their ways and customs, even dabbling in their theology. I prayed next to Hasidim at the Wailing Wall. And if I had to be an ignorant Gentile, I’m glad it was with Daniel, Anna, and Shalom.
There’s a Hebrew saying that comes from the Psalms: Shaalu Shalom Yerushalim. Pray for the peace (shalom) of Jerusalem.
He looked something like this, anyway.
Pray for shalom. Have a great day.