Martin Luther King, Monsey and 17D
by Fran Gordon
Two weeks ago, I flew to Israel via United Airlines to spend a week with my daughters,
son-in-law and granddaughters. I have been going back and forth from my homes in
the United States to my home in Jerusalem for over twenty-five years, but this was my
first stay where my primary role was Grammy of two, rather than artist/activist. As a
result of my daughter’s schedule, early morning Rosh Hodesh Shevat found me home
babysitting, rather than leading Hallel for the Women of the Wall at the Western Wall.
Yet, I still found myself playing the artist/activist role, not in the elevated sacred space of
the Kotel but literally high up in the air. On both United flights to and from the modern
democratic Jewish State of Israel, I faced overt gender discrimination by black-hatted
men whose “religious laws” forbid them to sit next to me. In other words, rather than
deal with the difficult political truth of discrimination based on gender at the Kotel, I
encountered it, in front of Blacks, Whites, Browns, Men, Women, Jews, Christians,
Muslims, Straights, Gays (and other protected classes) on United Flight #84 and United
Flight #91. In the spirit of Martin Luther King Day and with the conviction that
confronting difficult truths, discussing them and supporting social change as new truths
are discovered is my mission, I express my concern over these overt acts of gender
discrimination in the name of Judaism.
Upon agreeing to swap an aisle for aisle seat on my trip to Israel, the leader of this very
large group of ultra-orthodox men from Monsey, New York, proceeded to engage me in
conversation about what had just occurred. As a very well educated Jewish woman, I
assured him that I knew all about his laws of shomer negiah. My daughters have opted
to live by a lot of these rules grounded in Tamudic patriarchal understandings of gender
roles and behaviors, so I am quite familiar with the fundamental tenets. Only I
fundamentally disagree with those fundamentals. The Sacred Rights, Sacred Song
Project is expressly focused on ensuring that such interpretations of Jewish law be cast
aside in the public sphere that is known as the modern democratic Jewish State of
Israel. One of the main reasons it is so difficult for Israeli political leadership to make
such changes is because Israel’s parliamentary democracy overempowers small
groups, such as the ultra-orthodox political parties. Consequently, ultra-orthodox
practitioners of our Jewish faith assert their overempowerment in the wrong places,
such as on United Airlines flights to Israel. As I reluctantly and vocally agreed to change
my seat from 17C to 17D, I made it known to all around me, no matter the color of their
hats, their skin, no matter their belief in one G-d, a Trinity or some other form of Divine
Being, no matter who they love or what they hold dear, that I was deeply offended by
the fundamental belief that it was wrong for a man to sit next to me.
As is my way when I am upset, I turned to words in the immediate aftermath of my
humiliation. “17D” is being set to music and will become part of “Sacred Rights, Sacred
Song” – A Concert of Concern. This piece will give voice to the institutionalized
degradation that exists when a fundamentalist ultra-orthodox interpretation of Jewish
law is imposed on the public, whether in the State of Israel, the United States or on
United Flight #84.
These laws have no place on this plane,
but try to explain that to a man in black,
who looks at me and is taken aback
because he is assigned to 17B and that means he is next to me.
The grave concern upon his face
reflects his view of a woman’s place.
Sorry sir I disagree, but still I moved to 17D.
So the Men from Monsey got their way
but not before this woman had her say.
In the Divine Image, our G-d made me,
but still I moved to 17D.
19 Tishri 5777 (October 21, 2016)
8 Elul 5776 (September 11, 2016)
15 Adar II 5776 (March 25, 2016)