“This is the end of your fright”: Israel, Power, and Disability

Rabbi Julie Pelc Adler
June 14, 2013
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In London Heathrow Airport, an eclectic group assembles around the El Al gate, several hours prior to the time appointed for boarding the flight: one young bearded man with a large velvet kippa; a slender blonde sporting a tank top, jeans, and a plastic duty-free shopping bag; and two women with dark curls to match my own, joking with one another that the beurocracy is, as one calls it, “a balagan,” rolling her eyes at the long line spiraling out towards the other gates in the terminal. An elderly woman from Oslo rides in a wheelchair to the gate area, but encounters challenges with the wheelchair company, who must leave with the wheelchair before she has cleared security.

“I cannot walk,” she insists, “I cannot.” Then, turning to me, “even if they shoot me, I cannot.” I think of this as a uniquely Jewish response. What one says when pushed to the edge of ability, or perceived ability, says volumes. I imagine centuries of Jewish history where Jews were asked, demanded, threatened to do things they could not – would not – must not – do. This, too, is the place where morality and ethics evaporate and people are left only with that which is impossible and that which is possible.

The only American equivalent I can conjure is, “…even if you gave me a million dollars,” reflecting diametrically opposite status in terms of both power and ability.

What does it mean to be pushed to the edge?

She continues talking, perhaps to me, though I am admittedly distracted by the crowd of dark cloaks with squat black hats swaying in unison to music I cannot hear. I wonder whether it’s time for mincha prayers in this time zone, half a world away from the one I know, another away from the one to which we are all traveling.

In a crowd of Jews, my breathing is labored and quick. The mincha prayers do not include me, but, I remind myself, they do not explicitly exclude me, either. We are a tribe waiting for an airplane: a modern technological miracle to lift us into the air (on eagle’s wings?) to the promised land. We are one people: I repeatedly mistake strangers for faces I knew years ago: one woman shares a likeness to a girl I once new in summer camp in Wisconsin, another man looks oddly like a guy I met at a conference in college.

In a crowd of Jews, I cannot help myself but think about the Holocaust. A man shares a package of pale circular shortbread cookies with the others in his row. That one is bald headed: he wears a crocheted kippa and carries a small child in his arms. What would be his fate? His? How would she survive? Does this one look Jewish, or could she pass?

Before the formal announcement is made they all, seemingly en masse, begin to herd toward the boarding area, pressing forward, into one another, begging for the gate bridge to open to accommodate them all at once. I imagine their bodies pressed one against the next: men, women, children, orthodox, secular, non-Jews. They are a sea, pushing, trying to split the narrow rope preventing them from boarding the airplane.

I reluctantly join the herd, and, carefully slink my way slowly toward the front of the “line.” When I travel, I bring my walking cane, but to support my steps and to lean against it, should I unexpectedly lose my balance. Behind me, a young yeshiva student rocks in place, as though praying, even as he chats casually with his friends. Each time he rocks forward, he knocks into my backpack and I lose my footing for a moment. I try to move ahead, but each attempt only seems to encourage him to follow closely behind. I compare this noisy, haphazard, bunch with the very quiet more than 10 hour flight on Air New Zealand.

What made us like this? How did we become so hard, so loud, so insistent?

I feel like a foreigner here, among my own people. The pain of this fact splices through me like a pointed punctuation mark at the end of a very long, complicated sentence.

The noisy bunch finally files one by one onto the plane and, after several attempts by the flight crew, quiets into individual seats for take-off. The flight is brief in comparison to its predecessor, carrying me from Los Angeles to London. We arrive in Tel Aviv just over four hours later, and, upon landing in Israel, the plane erupts into applause. With slightly incorrect English pronunciation, the flight attendant announces, “this is the end of your fright.”

This is the first time I’ve come to Israel in nearly 12 years, mostly staying away due to a paralyzing fear of terrorism, domestic and foreign. As a teenager, I had lamented that Israel was the one country in the world that, as a liberal Jewish woman, I was unable to practice my Judaism freely and openly. Once, a bucket of dirty sink water had been dumped from an open window overhead onto me for using a public pay phone on Shabbat in Jerusalem. I did not feel safe wearing a kippa walking through the old city, and I did not dare wear a tallit to pray at the synagogues my friends attended (Orthodox, with a mechitza dividing men from women). The warm feelings of an intimate connection to a homeland had long faded over my twelve years of absence. But now, I look around the plane at the smiling, clapping people beside me and I feel strangely fond of them. I see us all as survivors.

As we exit the plane I smile at the photographs lining the jet bridge, showing pictures of the “original” Russian lady (a set of Russian dolls, nestled one inside the next), American lady (the statue of liberty) and Israeli lady (a cactus plant).

At home, I worked as a reform rabbi in two overlapping fields: Health/Healing and Gender Studies. I taught “The Constructions of Gender” to undergraduates at the American Jewish University (formerly the University of Judaism) and I worked as the Assistant Director of the Kalsman Institute on Judaism and Health. From my studies in each of these fields, I am familiar with theories related to and attempting to explain cycles of violence and abuse, both domestic and social. After having been the victim of sustained and meaningful abuse, it is difficult to overcome the underlying belief that there are only two choices: to be the abused or to be the abuser. This is why so many acts of violence are committed by those who, themselves, have intimately known violence.

In the baggage claim area, people push to huddle closer and closer to the carousel circling our luggage around. I lean against my walking cane, and try to peer inside the huddle to determine whether my bags have come out yet. The huddle rejects me, presses me further back, where I have no access to either an acceptable field of vision, nor to physically retrieve my bags. I wince, acknowledging that in any other country or city in the world, people look at a person with disabilities with softer eyes, offering to help, making a space for one who cannot press in closer like the rest. Here, I am seen as a person who moves slowly, judged for my vulnerability as one who might not fight for her place around the baggage carousel. I stand alone, surrounded by the tall, pointed edges of the prickly cacti in my midst.

Still, though I retreat to the pay telephones to call my friends and family to inform them that I arrived safely, I know not to take my expulsion from the huddle personally. Oddly, as I step away from the pressing crowd, I feel a freedom I cannot explain, and sadness for them that defies reason. They, too, perhaps more than me, are victims. I feel this truth with every cell in my body.

What does it mean to be pushed to the edge?

This is our legacy. This is our battle. This is our right.

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Rabbi Julie Pelc Adler works at the Aitz Hayim Center for Jewish Living in the suburbs of Chicago, Illinois. She also serves as the Director of the Berit Mila Program of Reform Judaism. She received master’s degrees from the University of Judaism and from Harvard Graduate School of Education and was ordained as a rabbi by Hebrew Union College—Jewish Institute of Religion in 2006, where she found deep meaning writing and researching her Rabbinic Thesis on the Book of Job: "Talk to Me: (Or, When More Bad Things Happen to Good People)." She is married to Rabbi Amitai Adler (also an S Blog contributor) and this year became Michael Zachary Joel Adler's mother.

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