For those who enjoy studying their fellow human beings, there are few better laboratories than a long flight. Indeed the opportunities for such study are one of the few pleasures of air travel, especially if one is crammed into an economy class seat. Plane flights often thrust us into the immediate company of someone from a completely different background, with whom we would have little likelihood of social interaction in everyday life.
It is a rare flight that I don't find myself learning something interesting about others – usually positive. Returning from London recently, I found myself next to a secular Israeli woman. Her attire did not leave me enthusiastic about my luck of the draw on this particular flight, and I kept my gaze firmly on my Gemara.
Thus I was shocked when she asked me before the plane had even taken off whether I would prefer that she switch seats with a young chassid sitting in the row behind us. Since we were placed in an exit row seat, with unlimited leg room in front of us and only two in the row, her offer was amazingly thoughtful and generous.
To my surprise, the chassid declined her offer to switch places. Both the seats next to him were still empty, and visions of being able to stretch out across the entire row were too enticing for him to worry about rescuing me from being seated next to an immodestly dressed woman.
He soon had cause to regret his choice, as the other seats in his row quickly filled. And because the occupants were also chassidic, the offer to switch seats was now clearly off the table. Sometimes, however, life offers a second chance. The stewardess told the woman next to me that for $300 she could move up to business class, and she leapt at the offer, leaving the road clear for the young chassidic fellow to join me.
We struck up a conversation, and he told me that he lives in Ramat Beit Shemesh – Beis. Perhaps he noticed my eyebrows shoot up, because before I even had a chance to tell him that I had recently written a couple of pieces critical of the behavior of the residents of that particular neighborhood, he quickly added, "But I'm not one of the Hamasniks!"
He then proceeded to assure me that the "Hamasniks" comprise no more than 30 families in the neighborhood. True, he told me, most of the neighborhood comes from Meah Shearim families who would be considered in Jerusalem parlance "kana'im (zealots)," but the media attention is all generated by a small sect within the neighborhood whose leader lives in America. This sociology lesson was total news to me.
When I mentioned that I had written a column critical of his neighbors that week in the Jerusalem Post, I received my second shock: He told me that he had subscribed to the Jerusalem Post, as part of his efforts to learn English. Nothing in my stereotypes of Reb Arlich chassidim prepared me for the idea that one of their number would be moved to learn English out of intellectual curiosity. I probed a bit more to find out if perhaps he felt English would be of use to him in his business, but he assured me that had little to do with it, and that he was not alone among his friends in taking English lessons.
THE BATTERING ADMINISTERED TO OUR BAG OF STEREOTYPES is one of the greatest benefits of meeting those outside one's normal social circles. The generosity of the well-to-do lady from North Tel Aviv and the curiosity to know more of the wider world of the Reb Arlich chassid were both blows to my stereotypes.
Earlier, on the way to London, I noticed a Belzer chassid sitting a few rows behind me. I was struck by the fact that he did not even remove his beaver hat and sat staring into a sefer the entire trip. Thus I was completely unprepared when he approached me a few hours into the flight and asked me, "Aren't you Yonoson Rosenblum?" I was even taken aback by his perfect English. But that surprise was nothing compared to that when he told me that he had read my biography of Reb Shraga Feivel Mendlowitz five times. He not only knew the Reb Shraga Feivel biography a lot better than I do, but a number of my other biographies as well.
Yet I would have identified this particular gentleman – who turned out to be the rav of the Khal Chassidim of Golders Green – as among the least likely people on the flight to read any English books.
Not only do we not know nearly as much about others by virtue of their dress as we think we do, but much of what we do "know" turns out to be wrong. As we were waiting for our luggage in Heathrow Airport, about five or six of a group of chassidim who appeared to be traveling together proposed to make a Mincha minyan. I pointed out another four or five from their group who could complete the minyan, but the latter preferred to wait for their bags and daven later.
I found myself perplexed that six of the group wanted to do one thing and four to do something else. Subconsciously, I had assumed that all those wearing the same "uniform" must think alike, and have identical opinions about when and where it would be preferable to daven. What I had done was no different than what secular Israelis do when they see an avreich in a black suit and fedora, and assume that he is a mindless automaton, whose entire life is guided by remote control by the chareidi community's rabbinical leaders.
P.S. One of my sons pointed out to me that my "discovery" of the inadequacy of our stereotypes is one that I already shared with readers a few years back when writing about the final session of a Dale Carnegie course comprised mainly of young chassidim. If so, that only proves how prone we are too slip back into easy stereotypes, no matter how many times reality smacks us in the face.