A poem that I love, and that changed my life, is “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry”, by Walt Whitman, part of his famous volume, Leaves of Grass. I first read it in a plank-lined coffee shop in Berkeley, California, ages ago, mesmerized by his imagery of flood-tides and currents, forests of swaying masts, gulls circling before the rays of the sun, and the flow of people in their normal daily rush:
“Crowds of men and women attired in the usual costumes! how curious you are to me!”
And his empathy and excitement reached as well toward future crowds he would never know:
“Just as any of you is one of a living crowd, I was one of a crowd.”
When I lifted my head I momentarily forgot where I was. When I walked out into the sunshine and throbbing street, the world looked different.
But today the ferry dock has become an airport. I grow fascinated, reading the electronic board flashing departures in an international hub such as Amsterdam or Istanbul: Moscow, Nairobi, Miami, Santiago. Even in Israel’s Ben Gurion Airport, with expanded air routes, passengers rush to boarding ramps for flights to Mumbai, Berlin, Addis Ababa, each destination a separate world that will engulf them.
Groups of strangers are squeezed momentarily together, hurtling through the sky in thin-skinned tubes. Some ignore others, some make light talk. They may help strangers with food trays, leave their seats graciously when someone needs to get to the aisle. Once the flight has landed and passengers scramble for their connecting flights, the encounters fade like silhouettes in the windows of a passing train.
Boarding a flight to Warsaw, which is emerging as a transfer hub for flights from Israel, my wife and I sat behind a Jewish ultra-orthodox woman and her five children. They filled the entire row on both sides of the aisle. The middle-aged mother, wearing a wig and small black hat, softly and calmly got her children in place with seat belts, stowed their packs, handed out treats, games and reading material.
But the youngest, a boy maybe three years old, was a twister, a turner, a grunting, churning walker on chubby legs . Without four clips clamping it to his head, his kippah would have sailed off. The mother and older children called him Gavri, with an occasional Gavriel thrown in. While talking to the others, the mother constantly kept her eye on him.
Beside me, by the aisle, sat a petite old woman with her silver hair set perfectly in small waves flowing back from her brow, and a face like a narrow, polished stone, with finely wrinkled skin stretched tautly across it. Her mottled fingers, wrists and forearms appeared as brittle as twigs, with veins bulging like purple worms. Yet her fingernails were manicured, brightly polished and perfectly matched her toenails peeking from closed straw shoes. She wore numerous rings and several bracelets. One had tiny gold charms hanging from it—cloverleafs, diamonds, hearts—with a Hebrew name on each, presumably for nine grandchildren.
She wanted to talk and talked easily. She had been a kindergarten teacher in Haifa, and now lived near her daughter’s family in Acco, helping with the children and volunteering at a children’s special needs center.
Her husband, who had been a terrific photo-journalist, died a few years earlier, she said sadly. He had photographed from within the vortex of Israel’s history. He and she were both came from families that arrived during the Ottoman period. Her stories of those early days of settlement seemed steeped and reflected in her honed features and finely etched wrinkles as she spoke. All her family was in Israel, except for one son and his family in Sacramento, where she was headed now.
The kids in front played travel games and drew. Gavri wiggled and squealed on his mother’s lap. When one sister was returning from the bathroom, Gavri insisted on going. But the beverage cart had just moved up the aisle and was even with our row, behind his. No obstacle, however, could stop Gavri the gyro. He instinctively started climbing onto the seat on the other side of the cart. But the man there with his hefty belly and gruff voice made it clear that this path was blocked.
Gavri backed up and moved toward our side. The old woman by me(whose name I never got), just stretched out her arms and lifted him up, speaking all the while in Hebrew, and let him scramble down behind the cart, where his sister was waiting.
His mother was mortified and profusely apologized, but the woman brushed it off. When Gavri returned, he stood near her. She spoke gently with him, and began moving her arm so that the bracelets slid and jangled.
Gavri giggled. He fixated upon the charm bracelet and reached for it. His mother gasped, “Gavri, no!’ Gavri moved away but then returned to the bracelets. The woman kept speaking gently to him. Eventually, he was on her lap and she was reading from a book that his mother handed her. But Gavri kept reaching for the charm bracelet.
Then the woman asked if he would like to show it to his mother, and she took it off. The mother froze. I think I froze. The woman put Gavri down in the aisle as he gripped the bracelet. He did not zoom off. “Show it to Ima(mother),” the woman said. When he handed the bracelet to his mother her relief was visible.
“Oh, it is beautiful,” she said. “Thank you. Now let’s give it back to this wonderful woman.” And he did.
He still squirmed in his seat, he still looked at the woman’s arm and laughed when she shook her bracelets. But he did not reach for the charm bracelet again. Could he understand that he had been given a special gift of trust?
When the flight landed in Warsaw and passengers began pulling luggage from the overhead bins, the orthodox mother gathered bags and distributed them to her children. We offered to help, but she insisted that her kids were “already good helpers.” She was able to carry extra bags, because Gavri walked with the old woman, holding her hand.
Then they parted for separate security lines and transfer gates. The family was headed for New York, the old woman for San Francisco, we for Krakow.
“Play the old role,” wrote Whitman in “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry”, “the role that is great or small, according as one makes it.”