Finding a small homecoming in transit.
The call to prayer
Praying in an airport always feels like a special category of exile. It’s almost impossible to find a place that’s completely out of the way, and it’s difficult to develop concentration while donning tallis and tefillin in public view, becoming a subject of conversation, one imagines, for other travellers who find you interesting, weird or even, one worries, a Jewish provocation.
Coming through Amsterdam recently, I was hunting for a place to pray when I found myself under a sign reading “Business Class Lounge/ First-Class Lounge/ Place of Worship.” A place set aside for prayer?
I hopefully followed the pointing arrow to the mostly unpopulated upper level of the terminal, where other arrows led me all the way to the far end of the corridor, as if to some sort of distant no-man’s land, where the non-denominational “Place of Worship” waited: a large, sunlit, carpeted room with a bookshelves containing all the words any Jew, Muslim or Christian might require.
As in places of worship all over the Western world, attendance was down, but I was not completely alone. Two Muslims using prayer rugs off the shelves were prostrating themselves in one corner. A directional vane thoughtfully inlaid in the floor near them pointed them south, toward Mecca. Two Americans, a black woman and a blond, beefy fellow whom I pegged as a Midwesterner, were sitting in chairs at the center of the room, their backs to Mecca as they read from their Bibles.
Shedding my anonymity, I took off my Los Angeles Dodgers cap, exposing the kippah underneath, and dug my tallis and tefillin out of my carry-on. A slender, bearded 40-something fellow who wandered in a moment later gave me the eye, then doffed his New York Yankees hat to reveal his own yarmulke, showing me that we were on the same team.
And so we prayed, Christians, Muslims, Jews, graciously ignoring one another. The Muslims finished and left. As I segued to the amidah
, the silent, standing prayer, a middle-aged man with a broad, pleasant face strolled in. I couldn’t get a clear geographical fix on him — middle European, I speculated, and therefore generically Christian. But he surprised me by taking a prayer rug off the Muslim end of the shelf, and then he too began to pray.
I took my time with the amidah
, and he and I finished at about the same time. Catching my eye, insisting on making the contact, he threw me a warmly affirmative nod. He was glad to see me, I realized with some surprise. Beyond all the current miseries of politics, cultures and “clashes of civilization,” he wanted to let me know that he, a Muslim, appreciated that I, a Jew, was here in the Place of Worship with him. I smiled and nodded back to let him know I felt brotherly, too.
It was a very slender moment, really. The more I say of it, in fact, the less it might mean. Because, after all, it was only the way things should be, a little brotherhood between spiritual cousins, an acknowledgement that we were cooperating in matters of the spirit, working on the central project from slightly different locations on the periphery. But given the current context, I felt immeasurably pleased that he had made the gesture and that I had reciprocated.
Packing up tefillin and tallis, I headed back out toward the impersonal airport corridor. He was sitting in the little anteroom of the Place of Worship, reading a magazine now, and we exchanged another warm smile and nod.
Beyond the Place of Worship, the blank hallways of the international terminal were anonymous, inoffensive, purposely bereft of special meanings. This Muslim man and I didn’t speak the same language, but in the protection of the “Place of Worship,” we had a shared vocabulary. We weren’t enemies, and these days, that was special meaning enough.