illustration by Avi Katz
“The air is unexpectedly cool and damp for early September when I emerge from Terminal 3 and cross over to the AirTrain. I’m alone and there are no human sounds, only the roar of traffic on the highway. Even that is muted as the elevator door shuts.”
I look up from 60C on my Delta flight from JFK to TLV. A pudgy young guy in a white shirt and a beard is standing over me.
“I’ve got the window,” he says apologetically.
I snap my laptop shut and squiggle out of my aisle seat.
“Sorry,” he says. “You were writing something.”
“It’s ok,” I say as he squeezes past me with a hat box and a large plastic bag full of cookies. He places them on 60B.
“I saw at the desk that no one’s sitting here,” he explains. He points at the computer. “Work?”
“Yes,” I say. “A story. I have a column in a magazine and the deadline is coming up. I’m just trying to get it started before takeoff.”
“Well, don’t let me bother you. By the way, I’m Yehuda.”
“Haim,” I say. “Thanks. Actually, I’m not sure if I want to write it.”
I settle back into my seat, pull down the tray table, and reopen the laptop. I tap out:
“‘Stand clear of the closing doors, please,’ I hear Niot intone, a broad smile on his face. The door opens and I walk down the corridor to the platform.
“Last February this space was not silent and I was not on my own. I’d arrived in the early morning from Israel with Niot and his two sisters, all of us on our way to a family reunion. He’d chain-drunk Coke the whole flight and was in high spirits.”
Suddenly the seat in front of me pivots back, nearly crushing my screen and pushing the computer so close to my body that further typing is impossible. I look up and see a black cloth kipah. A loud voice emerges from below it:
“Steward! Steward! Where’s my blanket! Look, he’s not listening to me.”
The last sentence is directed at the red-haired young man sitting across the aisle, who is talking up the young woman sitting behind him, across from me. The figure under the kipah leans into the aisle—he has a bushy beard and intense eyes.
“I’m Shmuel,” he said at high volume. “Who’re you?”
“Hi,” the young man said. “I’m Nadav.” He speaks English well, but with a notable Israeli accent. Unlike most of the other men sitting in our vicinity, his head is uncovered.
“Nadav!” Shmuel proclaims. “Do you know who Nadav was?”
“He was a king of Israel,” says Nadav.
“A king of Israel!” Shmuel exclaims. “I never heard of a Nadav who was king of Israel.” He pushes himself up from his chair and surveys the passengers in the back section of the airplane, as if to ask if any had heard of this King Nadav.
“Sure,” says Nadav. “Not for very long, though. Just a couple years.”
“I don’t know about that Nadav,” says Shmuel. “I was thinking of Nadav, the son of Aharon, the high priest. Do you know about that Nadav?”
A steward passes between them and asks Shmuel to return his seat to the upright position for takeoff and to keep his voice down as other passengers are trying to sleep.
“All right, all right,” says Shmuel. “Tell me,” he says, leaning far over until he looks Nadav directly in the eye, “what do you do?”
“I’m studying biology at Ben-Gurion University,” Nadav replies. “I just spent the summer working in a lab at MIT. We’ve developed method for tracking the degradation of proteins in bacteria.”
I power off my laptop and take out my copy of “Wuthering Heights.”
Yehuda stops chatting in Yiddish with the yeshiva student behind me and turns to me.
“Is that—waddayoucallit—fiction?” The plane speeds down the runway.
“Yes,” I said. “It’s a famous mid-nineteenth century novel about good and evil, set in northern England.”
“Once I tried reading a novel,” Yehuda relates as the plane tilts up and into the air. “My brother gave me the first Harry Potter book and said that I had to read it. I got through the first few chapters and it was pretty good. But I really prefer reading about real things. You know, history, science, that kind of stuff.”
I glance at Nadav, who is displaying far more forbearance than I would for the lecture he is receiving from his neighboring Habadnik.
“Nadav and Avihu were the sons of Aharon, the high priest of Israel,” Shmuel tells him. “They had the great privilege of serving God in the Holy Tabernacle. They could enter the holy precincts and make sacrifices. But what happened to them? The Torah tells us ‘vayakrivu lifnei Hashem esh zara,’ they offered a foreign fire before God. And then God killed them. Really. That’s exactly what happened. But why would God kill these two guys who were bringing him an offering? Why would they offer a foreign fire when they are privileged to be so close to God? You know what the Or HaHayyim says? You know the Or HaHayyim?”
“Tell me,” says Nadav.
“The Or HaHayyim was Rabbi Haim ben Atar, a Moroccan who came to Jerusalem and one of the great commentators on the Torah. He reminds us that the word for sacrifice, ‘yakrivu,’ also means ‘close.’ Nadav was so close to God that he was already worthy of the next world. So God took him and his brother. His father, Aharon, was sad, of course, but he did not say a word. He understood that his sons had reached a higher level of holiness than even he, the high priest, had.”
“Real stuff, when you read it, you know it is real,” Yehuda explains to me. “But when you read fiction it’s not real, so why should you read it?”
“I read a lot of non-fiction, too,” I tell Yehuda. “But I think there are things we can get from made-up stories that we can’t get from non-fiction.”
“Well, you enter into other people, their minds, and the way they use language. Fiction gives you a chance to consider how your life might be if you lived in a different place, in a different time, or under different circumstances. Also, stories bring home to us that we live within language and that the way we speak and write affects the way we see the world. Each story we read reminds us that we can tell our own stories in hundreds of different ways.”
“Ok,” says Yehuda.
“You’ve studied Torah, so that idea should be familiar to you,” I explain. “Take any story from the Bible or Rabbis. Take, say, the story of David and his son Avshalom.”
“But that’s a true story,” says Yehduda.
“So say it’s true. Even so, the story was written using a particular structure, and with particular words. The same story could be told in lots of different ways, but it was written in this particular way. So when we study the book we need to ask, like our commentators always do, why these words were chosen and not some other words.”
Yehuda thinks this over. “Tell me more about the novel you’re reading.”
“One thing that’s intriguing about it,” I say, “is the way it is told. There is a narrator who tells us the story as he hears it from a servant woman, who in turn includes things she has heard from yet other characters. I’m pondering why the author decided to tell the story in such an indirect way. She could, after all, have simply told the story in her own voice.”
“I don’t know much about the Bible, but we learned some in school,” Nadav tells Shmuel. “And I seem to remember learning that one interpretation is that Aharon’s sons were killed because they thought none of the available women were good enough for them.”
“That’s also true,” says Shmuel. “I think that that appears in the Holy Zohar. You know the story of the Holy Zohar? How it was written by Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai?”
“Still,” Yehuda insists, “I like to read about real things, like history.”
“Why are there so many books about, say, World War II?” I ask him. “Why do people keep writing books about it? If there were just one real story about the war, we’d only need one book. Historians would long ago have said all there was to say about what happened.”
“I never thought of it that way,” says Yehuda. “So it’s like Talmud. You keep studying and each time you study it you understand it in new ways.”
“Right. Take this conversation. When you recount it to someone tomorrow, think of how many ways you could tell it.”
“Wasn’t the Zohar written in the Middle Ages in Spain?” Nadav asks.
“It was revealed to us then,” says Shmuel. “But it was actually given by God to Moses and written down later by Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai. “There are truths you don’t learn at Ben-Gurion University. Now tell me about these bacteria of yours. What’s wrong with their proteins?”
“But I’m keeping you from writing your story,” Yehuda apologizes. “What kind of story is it?”
“A sad one,” I say. “About my son. He died five months ago.”
“I’m so sorry,” Yehuda says. “I should let you write.”
“I don’t think I can,” I reply. “Not this one, anyway.”
Over the loudspeaker a steward asks us to close all windows and turn off lights so that the passengers can sleep through the New York night and into the European morning. Shmuel tips his chair back again, Yehuda dons a neck pillow, I wrap myself in a red airplane blanket, and Nadav puts his head down on his tray table.
About four hours later, I’m the first to wake up. I get up, stretch, go to the lavatory, then take out my tallit and tefillin and recite my morning prayers. Afterward, as I wrap up my phylacteries and fold my prayer shawl, Nadav stirs, and we chat briefly about his research. I sit down with my book. Shmuel stretches and says a general good morning to everyone around him.
Nadav looks behind him. The girl is still sleeping. He leans over to Shmuel.
“Hey,” he says. “Tell me a story.”