Menachim is the friend I made on American Airlines Flight 16. I was traveling in Economy and there was an empty seat next to me -- for which I was grateful. At the very last minute before take off, an Orthodox Jewish man claimed the seat.
He was not someone I would have chosen as a seat mate. I am a secular Jew, with a particular antipathy for fundamentalism in any form. However, in the past few years, one of my grandsons chose ultra Orthodoxy as his way of life, which has troubled me very much.
A short time after the plane took off, without any thought, I turned to my fellow traveler and said, "I think it's beshert that I am sitting next to you." He smiled and said that beshert (it's fated) usually refers to a mating situation and he didn't think I had that in mind. Among other differences, my seat mate appeared about forty years younger than I am.
From that point on, Mechachim and I talked, laughed, and had drinks together. To my amazement, I liked this man. That flight was the start of our friendship. We have talked many times on the phone. He has visited my home and I have been at his home for a Purim party. He has invited me to join his family at Passover -- although I was unable to accept. He invites me to lunch with his wife. We have shared beliefs and feelings about many things. There is no doubt in my mind that we are friends.
My most recent experience with Menachim was when he brought me some special matzohs for Passover. We sat and talked for a while about his faith, our children, and my feelings about my grandson's Orthodox lifestyle.
As he was at the door, almost to leave, I turned to Menachim and said, "If I weren't against your tradition, I'd love to give you a hug."
The next morning Menachim called me. He said he had told his wife about my wanting to hug him. Her response was, "You should have let her. She's an old lady."