Thursday, September 13, 2007

A Jew in Sun Country

On my recent trip to New York, I flew Sun Country Air. I've used them before, and have had generally positive experiences. For flights in and out of Minneapolis, they are far cheaper than the competition, especially the exorbitant fares charged by Northwest, which dominates the airport. They fly direct, which is nice for me, in comparison to the other major low-fare airline that goes to MSP--AirTran, which directs all its flights through Atlanta (Atlanta is not exactly on the way between the Twin Cities and DC). And their flights are normally uncrowded--not a good sign of profitability, but far more comfortable to fly in.

The flights on this trip were delayed on both ends, but that was more a function of JFK International being a complete mess than anything the airline did. However, I did have a rather peculiar experience flying home. Sun Country offers a hot sandwich as its "snack" on the flight. The way there, it was turkey pastrami. Coming back, it was a cheeseburger. Being a semi-kosher Jew, I can't eat cheeseburgers. I asked if they had one without cheese, and the flight attendant told me, sorry, they don't. So I told her they should have a few without cheese, because sometimes Jews fly too. And she looked at me and said, half-indulgently and half-patronizingly, "well, we can't have everything."

She didn't say it mean, exactly, but the tone of voice made me feel as if I was making some wildly unreasonable demand of her company. And I resent being made to feel that way. I don't like it when Judaism is treated as some strange and mysterious cult, and I don't think it's utter craziness to set aside a few hamburgers without cheese so that people who--because they keep kosher, or are lactose intolerant, or whatever--can't have cheeseburgers still can eat. But I didn't say any of that. I don't like to make a fuss. So I accepted a small, significantly less filling cookie, and sat quietly for the rest of the flight.

Of course, the ordeal was even more awkward for me because of my own imperfect record of keeping kosher. Though I still don't ever eat bacon or shellfish, the "milk/meat" mix rule has started to fall apart significantly. The turkey pastrami sandwich on the way there had some hot goo on it which "for all I knew was mayonnaise", but pretty surely was cheese. I eat Philly Cheese Steaks without embarrassment now, and Chicken Parmesan as well. But, in my childhood, cheeseburgers were the quintessential example of an "unkosher food", something everybody ate but I didn't. As such, even though I don't really honor the rule which prevents me from eating it anymore, it occupies a peculiar space in my psyche that turns it into a sort of redline: if I start eating cheeseburgers, I've crossed over into total non-kosherness. So, unlike the pastrami, I refused the cheeseburger, and sat hungrily in my chair. Academically, I think this sort of negotiation over how to be Jewish in the modern world is totally legitimate. But practically speaking, it makes it hard for me to truly press that the airline accommodate kosher preferences.

But even still, this experience really impressed upon me that, even though Jews are treated pretty well in America and are reasonably comfortable here, we're still "strangers in a strange land." If I was flying El Al, this event would not have happened. My imperfect little negotiations would have been a moot point, and it's nice sometimes to not have to deliberate about which little sacrifices to my Judaism I'm willing to make to be a non-obtrusive citizen. What this event signifies is that even minority groups which are on relatively friendly terms with majority culture still remain minority groups. There is always that moment of strangeness, and the more common those moments are, the more stressful life can be. It's nice sometimes to be able to retreat into my own space--the Jewish Students Center at Carleton, for example--where I know I'm not going to be weird because I'm Jewish. And because of that experience, I feel I have an obligation to support similar cultural spaces for other minority groups who are "strangers in a strange land", and should not have to always be a minority, all of the time.


Anonymous said...

Wow, you got an actual hamburger? And a pastrami sandwich? I didn't know they still had those things on flights of that length. I thought it was just peanuts.

Jack said...

It reminds me of my roommate from last semester. Before he got to Georgetown he had never seen a Jew or a Black person before. Besides television. A lot of America is still like that. Theres a fair chance Judaism is mysterious to her (which doesn't excuse it, but still).

You have to admit though. The fact that you didn't complain is really ironic.


Mark said...

Years ago, it was always the case that for Kosher dining (or any other personal dietary requirements) on airlines one had to notify the airline ahead of time instead of expecting it to be done as a matter of course.

I would suggest that you try calling ahead to see if your Kosher meal can be made available and not expect in flight without any preparation.

However, it is the case that fasting and travel is always difficult to mix.

PG said...

I think this is common for all religious minorities -- Jews are just the largest religious minority in America, so you're more surprised that they weren't ready for you. Hindus generally aren't supposed to eat beef, and the really good Hindus (and all Jains) don't eat meat at all. Christians, having dispensed with the dietary laws, cheerfully glut on whatever they want, and find other religions inconvenient in this respect.

Anonymous said...

PG, I guess you forgot about Catholics foregoing meat on Fridays during lent and that is only one example. Please keep in mind that "Christians" encompasses a large group of diverse religious doctrines with varying dietary laws. Your disparaging remark generalizing Christians as glutinous close-minded eating machines certainly gets high marks for religious intolerance.

In addition, Jack meeting ONE lone individual that has never met a Jew or black individual as opposed to the thousands of individuals you have met in your lifetime hardly qualifies as a lot of America “still being like that.”

While I agree with David that it would be nice to have a few non-dairy/kosher/vegetarian meals set aside, but the reality of the situation is that sun country serving a hot snack should not be confused with serving a hot meal. As you stated this is a discount airline offering a simple perk the cost of having a few extra special sandwiches, which will likely be thrown away is not worth it. While you may be too young to remember when airlines regularly served meals it was necessary preorder kosher meals when you booked your ticket (as standard as requesting an aisle seat). It is ridiculous to declare that Judaism is being treated as some strange cult just because you were not offered a kosher snack on a plane, made even more ridiculous by the fact that you ate the hot pastrami and cheese sandwich and admit to only eating kosher as the mood strikes you. However, if you do convince them to add a kosher snack I would throw my two cents in for a Hebrew National, they are delicious. In addition, being a Jew in America does not make you a stranger in this land as we are all strangers and this idea of mainstream America being one group of waspy Christians that all think with one mind is downright absurd.