By Jessica Bram
When I was twelve my mother gave me an instruction that was to stay with me in a most annoying way for the rest of my life. I was waiting at an airline gate about to take my first plane flight alone, thrilled at the prospect of my first experience at air travel and this undeniable leap toward adulthood.
Finally, the door to the ramp whooshed open. This was it. As I stepped forward to board my mother, who had been standing quietly at my side, turned toward me.
Her face was unusually serious. “As the plane is about to take off,” she said, looking at me intently, “I want you to say the Shema.”
This caught me by surprise. Although my mother lit Shabbat candles most Friday nights, and attended High Holy Day services each year, I did not think of her as a particularly pious person. Hebrew prayers were not something commonly invoked in our day-to-day life. Yet here she was instructing me to say the most sacred declaration in the entire Jewish liturgy—not only an affirmation of the sovereignty of God, but also, an explicit statement of the existence of one and only one God, thereby defining Jew as apart from Christian. It was proclaimed at every service: “Hear, Oh Israel, the Lord Our God, the Lord is One.” Accompanied by a full throttle organ blast of major chords, Shema never failed to induce a huge shiver like icicles coursing down my shoulders as the congregation sang out, each word almost its own triumphant declaration: “Shema! Yisrael! Adonai! Elohenu! Adonai! Echod!”
I was impressed. Did air travel really merit a gesture so profound?
It occurred to me then that my mother’s command might have had less to do with reverence than superstition. My mother was of that generation for which air travel was still regarded as somewhat perilous. When she had stuffed quarters into the flight insurance dispenser in the terminal earlier, I was quite certain she was aiming for insurance of a different kind. To ward off “the evil eye,” no doubt, and deliver me safely. In any case, I imagined her thinking, it couldn’t hurt.
Even at age twelve I could recite the Shema from memory. But I had learned it in the unlikeliest of places: Girl Scouts. I had been chosen as one of three, along with a Catholic and a Protestant girl, to recite our respective religion’s prayers at the opening of a huge convocation of Girl Scouts and Scout leaders from the Greater New York area. So I had the odd experience of proclaiming the Shema aloud for the first time before a microphone and few thousand Girl Scouts, mostly Christian.
I did not forget my mother’s instructions as the plane, engines roaring, began its acceleration down the runway. At the very moment of that heart-stopping miracle in which a huge machine lifted into the air, I obediently whispered a quick Shema. And then turned my attention to the astounding first sight of tiny cars crawling along slim, winding ribbons of highway; of perfect squares of green and rust laid out like a giant, undulating checkerboard; and most breathtaking of all, the sudden surprise of rising through grey mist to a blindingly bright blue sky above a snowy floor—the most perfect depiction of heaven I could ever imagine. Now this, if anything, spoke to me of God. Not an ancient Hebrew prayer that reminded me mostly of our great stone synagogue with its worn velvet seats.
Over the years, as I grew older and air travel became commonplace to me, the Shema had a habit of popping into my head at that very moment in which the plane’s wheels lifted off the runway. To be perfectly honest this became, more often than not, irritating. I meant no disrespect for this sacred declaration. But when flying to Mexico on college break with not much more than a bikini and a bottle of Bain de Soleil; or off on my honeymoon in Paris; or even, during my young banker days, when flying to Pittsburgh with a pile of annual reports on my lap, the last thing I wanted to think about was religion, or four thousand years of rabbis in black coats. Least of all did I want to be reminded of martyrs of the Middle Ages uttering the Shema with their last breaths before being burned at the stake. But there it was, every time: the Shema. Seeming almost to utter itself with some odd power of its own. And suddenly I would become, once again, the obedient daughter. A Good Jewish Girl—dutiful, reverent, and chaste. It has been that way ever since.
My first born son David was eleven when he flew alone for the first time, to Space Camp in Florida. At the airline gate, neither of us spoke as David waited to board. Ostentatiously nonchalant, David scarcely glanced out the large observation window onto the runway, as though air travel was nothing unusual to him.
Should I do it? I wondered. Should I tell him to say it? I wasn’t the slightest bit superstitious. But, well—it couldn’t hurt. And it was tradition, after all. I hesitated, and then reconsidered. Should I burden David with this annoying instruction for the rest of his life?
I was caught in a small panic of indecision as the plane was called to board. It was now or never. Maybe I should just tell him.
I took a breath. No. Let him think about Space Camp, and adventure, and the view out his window. Boy stuff. Not religion.
With barely a “Bye, Mom,” David stepped out the door to the tarmac where a row of gleaming airplanes waited in the distance. A flight attendant at his side, David walked briskly toward the farthest plane, which seemed to grow larger as they approached it. And then, as David’s figure became smaller and smaller, a strange kind of reversal in time took place. David seemed before my eyes to change back from confident almost-teenager to small boy to toddler, and then to that baby boy whom I once never let out of my sight.
And then I understood. It hadn’t been superstition at all that had been in my mother’s mind when she told me to say the Shema. It was the knowledge that she had that day been putting me in the hands of her God, entrusting me to His safekeeping. Delivering me not only to the sky, but to this first step toward adulthood and that inexorable journey away from her. The words of the Shema—her words, but spoken by me—were the link of their hands as I passed from one to Another.
The small black speck that was my son disappeared into the plane. I remained at the window, and the words came easily. Shema Yisrael Adonai Elohenu Adonai Echod.
Jessica Bram is a writer, radio commentator and author of Happily Ever After Divorce: Notes of a Joyful Journey (Health Communications, Inc. 2009). She teaches at Westport Writers’ Workshop, which she founded in 2003.