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The Bulkhead

The Bulkhead

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There are Chassidim who relish davening on airplanes. Immediately after takeoff, a Chassid of this breed stands up in the aisle (the farther forward, the better), intones a thunderous brachah, and with a great sweeping motion, envelops himself in a tallit, causing nearby passengers to flinch as flying tzitzit miss their eyes by millimeters. He then prays with an ardor rarely seen in shul, blocking the aisle and attracting the attention of everyone on the plane, and that, of course, is precisely his intent. He is, after all, a Chassid, charged with the mission to reveal G‑d's presence within whatever niche of creation he happens to occupy at any given moment. Although the airline is under the impression that it has staged the flight in order to make money, and the passengers think that they are on the plane in order to actually arrive somewhere, the Chassid knows better. The Chassid understands that the objective of the flight is to sequester 150 souls 50,000 feet above sea level so that they can watch him daven and learn that there is a G‑d in the world. When finished davening, any Chassid worth his salt works the cabin, entwining Jewish men in tefillin, reminding Jewish women to light Shabbat candles, and exhorting non-Jews to keep the seven Noahide commandments.

Although my admiration for these stalwarts knows no bounds, I am most definitely not one of them. I just do not have the genes. I abhor public display and I can not bear to make a spectacle of myself, no matter how worthy the cause. It goes without saying that I am useless on mitzvah campaigns, except in those instances in which an adult is simply needed to drive the getaway car.

Thus, some years ago, while en route to LA, my stomach knotted up as I realized that I would have to daven on the plane on my return trip. The homeward flight left too early to pray the morning service beforehand and because of the time change, it would not arrive until well past noon. The fact that the flight was scheduled for the tenth of Tevet, a fast day on which the morning service is unusually protracted, didn't help. While pondering my predicament, I recalled that, when our kids were small, my wife always asked for the bulkhead seats when we traveled. As I remembered, the bulkheads were partitions that separated the last five or so rows of seats from the rest of the plane. I looked down the aisle and confirmed that there were indeed panels partially isolating the back end of the cabin, just as I had remembered. If I could secure a seat immediately behind a panel for the return flight, I could stand facing this partition and pray in relative privacy. Such an arrangement was not ideal, but I could live with it, and I began to relax.

Immediately upon my arrival in LA I rushed to the ticket counter and procured a boarding pass for a bulkhead seat for my homeward flight. Thus assured of a reasonable place to daven, I left for the city with a light heart.

When I arrived at the departure gate for my return flight, I glanced at my precious ticket to semi-invisibility and noted, with some unease, that the seat number seemed quite low for a position at the back of the plane. My uneasiness ballooned into anxiety when I caught a glimpse of the plane. It was much larger than the one on which I had arrived and it had an upper deck. I approached the agent at the gate who examined my boarding pass and assured me that I did indeed have a bulkhead seat. However, when I boarded the plane and showed my pass to the flight attendant, she indicated a seat right at the doorway, facing the cavernous entry to the plane. I stared at her in disbelief and explained to her that I had been assigned a bulkhead seat. Just so, she replied, and pointed to the same seat. It began to dawn on me that the airline personnel and I did not speak the same language. Another brief exchange with the attendant set me straight. The "bulkhead", as the term applied to this particular aircraft, was nothing other then the door to the plane, behind which were endless rows of seats all facing forward.

My davening that morning would be graced by a captive audience of about 300 people. Pavarotti could have wished for no better.

The plane took off and soon the captain switched off the seatbelt sign indicating that we had reached our cruising altitude. The moment of truth had arrived, and I had no choice but to pray as best I could. As I stood up and donned tallit and tefillin, I soon discovered that the doorway area afforded plenty of space in which to stand and I found that if I positioned myself hard by the door, I was visible only to a few forward rows. Maybe it wouldn't be so bad after all. However, the revelation that it would be so bad after all was not long in coming.

Just as I finished Baruch Sh'amar, I felt a tap on my shoulder. I turned to confront two very impatient flight attendants standing by a mammoth mobile bar. "Sir, you can't do that here. This is the bar area". "See here young lady, it so happens that I am a servant of G‑d and a Chassid of the great and holy Rebbe of Lubavitch, and I intend to sanctify this spot by reciting my morning prayers here. So take yourself and your bar elsewhere". This is precisely what I did not say. In fact I didn't say anything because I was between Baruch Sh'amar and Yishtabach, an interval in which speech is not permitted. I couldn't have spoken in any case because my stomach had lurched up against my diaphragm, and I began to wheeze and hyperventilate. I raised my eyebrows, which had become decorated with fine beads of sweat, and shrugged hoping that the attendants would understand this gesture as an appeal for sympathy, help and understanding. Unfortunately, they were unreceptive. They were clearly annoyed that this apparition from the biblical era had not only commandeered their bar area, but wouldn't even speak to them. "Sir, you can do whatever you are doing at the back of the cabin near the rear galley."

So there was a place at the back of the plane where I could do whatever I do. A sense of relief surged through my distraught brain, and my stomach let go of my diaphragm, allowing me to take a couple of normal breaths. I nodded vigorously at the flight attendants, utilizing the opportunity to shake a drop of perspiration from the tip of my nose, and I began untying the strap of my tefillin in preparation for my escape to the refuge at the back of the plane.

Suddenly I froze with the dread realization that Providence was not about to let me off so easily. This was simply one of those shlock disaster-movie interludes, the moment of false hope, in which the poor suckers about to be decimated by an inevitable and inescapable catastrophe are deluded into believing that salvation is at hand.

I would remove my tallit and tefillin and walk to the rear of the cabin, but what then? Did I need to recite a brachah upon re-strapping the tefillin or not? Did a walk down the aisle of the aircraft imply hesech hadaat (loss of conscious attention from the tefillin)? If it did, then a blessing was required. If not, and I recited the blessing on the tefillin, it would be "a brachah in vain" - a severe halachic prohibition.. Although instinctively I felt that a brachah was unnecessary, I wasn't really sure. Just two weeks before I had listened in on a complicated debate on just this subject at the Yeshivah, and the situation was far from clear. What should I do? My frenzied cogitations were cut short by the flight attendants, now, openly hostile, who insisted that I must move at once.

There was no way out. I picked up my tallit bag, took my prayer book and walked the full length of the plane, resplendent in tallit and tefillin. My trek down the aisle electrified the entire cabin. "What the...?" "Mommy, what's that ?" "Hey look Lucy, Moses is back" "Bizarre, man" "What's that box on his head?" From the corner of my eye, I caught images of bewilderment, shock, and amusement. As for me, the death of a thousand cuts would have been preferable. Somehow I made it to the semisecluded haven at the back of the cabin and tried to collect myself. I started to daven but the only prayerful thought that I could muster was a fervent hope that the rear emergency door would blow open, and I would be mercifully sucked out of the aircraft.

This would never do. I had to pull myself together and daven properly. After all, the brain, by virtue of its innate superiority, rules the heart, right? I thought of Reb Mendel Futerfas (of blessed memory), who managed to perform mitzvot and daven with zeal in a Siberian labor camp surrounded by the dregs of humanity. I reminded myself of the parable in Tanya of the "heathen" whose efforts to distract a Jew from praying were really a Divine gift, intended to elicit from the afflicted individual hidden spiritual strengths. I told myself that this episode presented a golden opportunity to transcend my own personal limitations, and that I should be overjoyed. None of it worked. The emotional turbulence and the effects of caffeine withdrawal as a result of the fast had dissipated whatever inner resources I might have had. My brain, despite its vaunted innate superiority, did not rule my heart, nor, for that matter, any other part of me. I recited the prayers like a zombie and removed my tefillin and tallit. I cringed at the thought of walking back up the aisle to my seat, and I briefly considered crawling, until I realized that everyone would be able to see me anyway.

I hunched my shoulders, stared at the floor and quickly proceeded up the aisle. The cabin was quiet and fairly dark. It was obvious that the in-flight movie had begun. I glanced up at the movie screen and the marvel that met my eyes stopped me dead in my tracks. There on the screen were Jews, dozens of them, all wearing tallit and tefillin, and all davening. I couldn't get over it. I stood and watched until this extraordinary tableau faded to another scene, and I then continued up the aisle. The movie, which as I later discovered was "The Jazz Singer", had also apparently made quite an impression on the other passengers.

As I made my way, I attracted considerable attention, but it was of a totally different kind than that which I had received an hour earlier. The looks were those of admiration and respect. People nodded knowingly to each other and smiled. I saw one woman pointing to me and explaining something to her small child. People in aisle seats wished me good morning and one man even stood up. When I arrived at my place the erstwhile testy flight attendants deferentially inquired after my comfort.

I was aglow with wonder, gratification, and thankfulness. I was also more than a little ashamed of myself. The Almighty did not produce and direct this magnificently orchestrated comedy of errors only in order to apprise 300 people of His eternal and all-encompassing presence. It seems that the 301st passenger, namely myself, was also in need of some serious instruction in this ultimate truth.

I thought of the Kotsker Rebbe. When he was a child someone jokingly told him "Mendel, I will give you a penny if you tell me where G‑d is". The little boy answered "I will give you two if you tell me where He is not."

Dr. Yaakov Brawer is Professor Emeritus of the Faculty of Medicine at McGill University. He is the author of two books of Chassidic philosophy, Something From Nothing and Eyes That See
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Anonymous August 23, 2017

That was hysterical, so funny and unfortunately, I also can identify with it. The Abishter works in amazingly mysterious ways to push us into making personal improvements. Yasher Choach! Reply

Yitzchak Sapochkinsky November 28, 2016

Just came across this and thoroughly enjoyed it. Brilliantly written and comically entertaining. A gem! Reply

Issac Brooklyn November 27, 2015

Haa! thank you for the laughs. Reply

Joel Fullerton, CA August 8, 2012

On the Train I as well was waiting at the train station at 3am. I knew that I would not arrive at my destination until nightfall and had no idea of what I would do for my morning prayers. As I watched the sunrise I knew that the time had come. I had already made friends with the people sitting in the seats next to me. I simply pulled out my Tallit, prayer book, and Tefillin. I tried my best to pay no attention to the crowd around me and for the most part most of them made that easy by respecting my prayer with silence. There was an elderly gentleman with whom I had been speaking with earlier that upon noticing me said something in a low voice and moved several seats back on the train. I was scared for I had never had to do this in public before however I had no choice. Concentrating was dificult at first as I mumbled through my prayers dressed in full prayer attire however I concetrated on my Tallit. I was closed off from the world. I finished my prayers to a cabin of smiling faces. Reply

stebre88 Auckland, New Zealand February 29, 2012

The Bulkhead Excellent! This is such an inspiration to us all. G-d is bigger than all of us. Reply

cb May 14, 2010

hilarious!!! Reply

Moshe David Los Angeles, CA December 29, 2009

The Jazz Singer is originally a short story entitled "The Day of Atonement" by Samson Raphaelson, published in Everybody's Magazine, 1922. Raphaelson was inspired by the real life performer Al Jolson.

The story of Jackie Rabinowitz was adapted for the stage and re-titled "The Jazz Singer". George Jessel was the lead character, and was all ready to do the movie for Warner Brothers, until he read the screenplay and refused, understandably, since the crux of the initial story has the ending with Jack returning to fill his father's shoes and stay with Jewish tradition, whereas the film adaptation switches the ending entirely and has Jack pursuing the limelight.

What sort of 'brotherhood of man' casts aside the best wishes of your father and tradition and obligation to G-d in order to pursue fame and fortune, I have no idea.

G-d clearly used the scene with the tefillin, and in fact Yaakov Brawer (another Jack :)) in order to illustrate the importance tradition and dedication Reply

Anonymous Dallas, Tx/USA June 10, 2008

The Bulkhead In "The Jazz Singer" Al Jolson sets aside all his Yiddishkeit and religious regalia and becomes one with his fellow man. In so doing, Jolson serves God and leaves a positive Jewish legacy (and some great tunes) that lives on to this day.

Perhaps God's message here is to stop putting yourself above everyone else and join the great Brotherhood of Man so you can make a real difference, be loved, and not hurt other's feelings. Reply

Yohanon February 28, 2008

The Bulkhead Kol haKavod Reply

Anonymous via chabadalberta.org July 16, 2006

AWESOME! This story is great and a great example to all. This story includes inner emotions which inccur inside and is very well expressed in this story. Yasher Koach -- a Big one! Reply

Jessica Klein Levenbrown los angeles, CA July 14, 2006

the bulkhead Great story. Very funny. AND you're a doctor. Your mother must be very proud!!! Reply

Anonymous Morristown, NJ July 13, 2006

I really enjoyed your article. It gave me a lot of laughs that my 12 year old kept asking, "What's so funny ,Mom?" It spoke of the true nature of one's shyness but still passing the test to have self-sacrifice for Torah.... Reply

P'nina Miriam Gorelick JERUSALEM July 13, 2006

thanks to Yaakov Brawer Immobilized from dehydration on this 17th of Tammuz only a few hours from breaking this fast, I am grateful for Yaakov Brawer's entertaining and endearing essay "The Bulkhead." Kol hakavod. Reply

Davis Kahn July 9, 2006

Amazing... and hilarious! Thank you for the much needed inpiration. Reply

Nate Sachs Scottsdale, AZ July 9, 2006

The Bulkhead Story Great story...I thought I was the only one who died a thousand deaths when having to daven on a plane. Since 9/11 I have not been allowed to stand in the galloway to daven. I have found that if you take a window seat it affords you the most privacy, no one can see you beside the person sitting next to. Even the people in the aisle across from you cannot see, planes are configured that the each side of the aisle is really catty corner to the one across from it. Reply

Jerome November 3, 2005

Have I told you lately how much I love this site?
Just checking. Reply

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