I just got back from spending seven days in Italy.
My bank of miles allowed me to travel free to Europe in Premium Economy. (You get “special amenities” and your seat is right behind First Class or Business.) I paid for my trip back to the United States with dollars and landed in a seat approximating Main Cabin in domestic flights.
My one-way fare back from Florence via Paris to New York City was about $1000. I was fed two very substantial meals and was offered a plethora of snacks and beverages, served by smiling, polite and extremely accommodating flight attendants. I had excellent access to the very clean restrooms and watched three fascinating movies: After Sun, The Son and The Sixth Child. And I read my book.
Flying over the Atlantic Ocean in the middle of the night terrified me. For days before boarding, I practiced reciting The Shema until it became as familiar as my name. I figured murmuring The Shema as the plane hurled through the sky before plunging into the ocean was a more dignified way to end my life than hysterically screaming obscenities as the plane went down.
The air time — about 10 hours in all — passed quickly, uneventfully and very pleasantly. And my window seat provided an unimpeded view of the rolling hills of Italy and then the magnificent cloud formations over the Atlantic Ocean.
Why am I writing about this? Because all the sights I saw in Italy, all the excellent wine I drank, the friends I made, the things I bought and the food I ate — nothing compared to the experience of crossing the ocean in such a modern-day way.
Just over 120 years ago, things were very different. Jewish emigrants, poor and seeking a better life in the New World, were buying passage to the United States in steerage. Passage usually cost about $30 per person and for that they were provided a cramped space below deck.
Food was often provided, but had to be cooked by the passengers. Popular fare was lukewarm soup, black bread, boiled potatoes, herring and stringy beef. Bedding was lugged on board by the passengers and they were then separated by marital status. Passengers slept on narrow bunks where the air was often quite stuffy. And little time was allotted on the upper deck in the fresh air.
In short: cramped, unsanitary conditions and poor food.
I traveled recently purely for pleasure — to experience the wondrous area of Tuscany in Italy. Many emigrants who traveled in the late 1800s and early 1900s, like all of my great grandparents, were fleeing persecution and lack of economic opportunity. Steerage was the lowest grade of accommodation — similarly compared to the dismal conditions of a slave ship: danger, disease and suffering. Rats and lice abounded. Ventilation was non-existent.
When on the plane, I wore compression socks to help with my circulation. I carried a black-out mask in case I wanted to catch a cat nap. My cell phone was beside me at all times and a gentle breeze from the vents above me kept me comfortable. The width of my seat was about 17 inches and there happened to be no one sitting next to me. And I had ample light to recite the Jewish Traveler’s Prayer whenever we hit the slightest bit of turbulence.
May it be Your will, Lord, our G-d and the G-d of our ancestors, that You lead us toward peace, guide our footsteps toward peace, and make us reach our desired destination for life, gladness, and peace. May You rescue us from the hand of every foe, ambush along the way, and from all manner of punishments that assemble to come to earth. May You send blessing in our handiwork, and grant us grace, kindness, and mercy in Your eyes and in the eyes of all who see us. May You hear the sound of our humble request because You are G-d Who hears prayer requests. Blessed are You, Lord, Who hears prayer.
Emigrants fleeing Europe were typically on their voyage from 40 to 90 days depending on the weather and the wind. Each passenger had about two square feet of space for themselves and their belongings. And sea sickness was rampant.
Almost 1500 planes cross the Atlantic Ocean on an average summer night, separated by approximately 40 miles each. In spite of the huge number, I am still filled with sheer awe over the experience of flying across the ocean in blissful comfort in a matter of hours in 2023. And that is not even taking into consideration the amazing safety record of the airlines.
It is so humbling when I remember my great grandparents only 120 years ago crossed the same ocean huddled in steerage, facing an unknown future and a rigorous physical examination when they disembarked onto Ellis Island. Me? When I landed, I just had to show my passport, pick up my luggage and look for my driver, who was whisking me to one of my sons’ homes nearby.
It’s a lot easier to “Preserve Our Bloom” in 2023 –
Iris Ruth Pastor