LOS ANGELES – Pilots on an Alaska Airlines flight from Mexico City to Los Angeles locked down the cockpit and alerted authorities Sunday when a flight crew grew alarmed at the behavior of three men who turned out to be conducting an elaborate orthodox Jewish prayer ritual, officials said.
The men, all Mexican nationals, began the ritual that involves tying leather straps and small wooden boxes to the body, and the crew of Flight 241 alerted the cockpit, airline spokeswoman Bobbie Egan said.
“Shortly after takeoff, a flight attendant saw what she believed was unusual behavior from three passengers on board,” Egan said in a statement. “The three passengers were praying aloud in Hebrew and were wearing what appeared to be leather straps on their foreheads and arms.”
The cockpit was placed on a security lockdown for the rest of the flight — meaning the door couldn’t be opened even for pilots to leave briefly. Normal protocol calls for the cockpit to be locked, but on longer flights the pilots will leave and return from the flight deck.
Glancing through the comments, it was clear that many people are freaked out by anything unusual; their immediate reaction being that it must be a terrorist plot of some kind. I’ll readily admit that there can sometimes be a fine line between innocuous religious rituals (such as praying) and being obnoxious. I don’t like it when a baby cries incessantly on an airplane – but what do I know? Maybe that baby is praying (presumably in “tongues”). After decades of massive societal “diversity training” and sensitivity to other cultures, one would think that something positive would come of it. Instead, we have a society of people who would never dream of objecting to the dismantling of their own nation and culture – but who become hysterical when confronted with traditional Jewish prayer. One would think that, of all people, flight attendants would have some familiarity with various customs and beliefs. After all, they work on international flights.
All that being said, an airplane is not the ideal place for such prayers. But, like other religions, Judaism sets specific times for prayer. When travelling, it is not always possible to find the most convenient times for such things. In a crunch, the observant Jew may find himself with no other options but to recite his prayers on the plane. Perhaps he also feels closer to God up amongst the clouds. Those clouds can look very spiritual at times.
Back when I was a young whippersnapper and I was religiously observant, I traveled across the country on a Greyhound bus. We had a stop in Butte, Montana – and this was in the 70’s – so it was a fairly redneck sort of place. It was time to pray, so I took out my tefillin and started to pray in Hebrew – right there in the bus station. There was an old man sitting next to me and the creases in his face spoke of years of toil in the sun. He looked confused and nervous for a while. Then he turned to me and asked, “that Chinese or Japanese?” I politely answered that it was Hebrew and that I’m Jewish and he nodded. A few moments later he turned to me and asked, with a thoughtful expression that deepened his creases, “Jewish… that similar to Judaism?” I got a chuckle and he got a new story to tell his buddies and grandkids. At no point was security called.
But all that was before 9-11. Now, because the U.S. was stupid enough to allow Islamic fanatics in, anything unusual is considered suspect – at least on an airplane. But now even train stations (be sure to read the comments) are being subject to “security measures”. It was not hard to predict that the “security state” would gradually creep into every public area. Will we reach a state where there is no tolerance for unusual behavior even on public streets? Where a person can be detained for dressing funny, acting strangely or making an off-color joke? Let’s hope not.