I was squeezed into economy, my knees wedged uncomfortably into the seatback in front of me, but I was glad to be in the air at last, on my way home from Florida. It was Sunday morning, only hours before the first night of Chanukah, and I was flying Spirit, the bare-bones carrier that gives you cheapo deals—and not much else. You can’t even get a bottle of water without whipping out your credit card, but it takes you from here to there.
Suddenly, I felt a tap on my shoulder.
“Hi, I’m Evelyn. Happy Chanukah!” The voice belonged to one of the flight attendants. The woman appeared to be in her mid-sixties, with a weathered face and eyes that reflected sadness.
“Thank you,” I said. “And happy holidays to you.”
The woman smiled and continued on her way.
After a short and uneventful flight, the plane landed at Newark. But there was a mechanical problem with another plane that was stuck at the gate, which meant we couldn’t get off until they resolved the problem. There was nothing to do but wait.
I was standing in the back stretching my legs when I noticed a flight attendant perched on the jump seat reading a book. Upon closer inspection I realized it was Evelyn, the woman I’d spoken to before, and the book was about Chanukah. I had just spent a beautiful weekend at Torah Umesorah’s Presidents Conference, where some of the speakers had addressed the skyrocketing intermarriage statistics and our obligation to reach out and light the spark in another Jewish soul. Evelyn seemed like someone who might qualify.
“You’re Jewish, aren’t you?” I asked, nodding at the book on her lap.
“Yes,” she replied softly. “I’m actually in mourning right now. I’m in the middle of shivah for my husband, who died a week ago. My friends are coming over tonight to sit shivah with me.”
I was stunned for a moment. “I’m so sorry to hear that,” I said. “Forgive me for asking, but why are you here today? You should be taking care of yourself right now.”
“You’re right, hon,” she said. “But I need the medical insurance, and I can’t afford to take off. Working as a flight attendant is only a side job because Spirit offers excellent insurance. I actually have a small business selling art.”
She then told me a little about her late husband, Steve, who had been in and out of the hospital for 14 years, during which she had cared for him. They had two children, one of whom was a son in the air force. She also discussed the challenges of handling two jobs and told me proudly that as a vegan, she actually did keep kosher. “And of course, since I work part time, I don’t work on Shabbat.”
I was impressed by how eager she was to tell me about the mitzvos she keeps. That’s why I was stunned and saddened when our conversation turned to her husband’s funeral and burial.
“When are you having the unveiling?” I asked, mostly to show interest since she seemed to want to talk about her husband’s passing.
“My husband was cremated,” she replied.
I couldn’t say a word for a few seconds. “When?” I finally whispered.