A couple of weeks ago I had occasion to visit the new US Embassy in Jerusalem, which was relocated to my neighborhood a few days earlier to be closer to me.
Upon reaching the security guards outside the entrance I was told that I could not enter with my backpack, which contained a sefer, a bottle of water, and a few small personal effects. They claimed this was stated on the web site. (I challenge you to find it ó I still havenít.) They had also emailed me the previous day a reminder of my appointment, with various important pieces of information, but neglected to mention that it would be most advisable to show up with the shirt on your back and little else.
In any case, I asked them what I should do. They didnít know. I asked them if I could simply leave my bag outside. Sure, they said, but as soon as I went inside they would call the police to have the bomb squad take it away. All right then. Any other ideas? No.
Seeing my predicament, a young man at the end of the line offered to hold my bag for me until I finished my business inside. I felt this was a risk I had to take, but I implicitly trusted him. People on line outside the embassy seem to band together in a rare show of weíre-all-in-this-together camaraderie that unites even people of different genders and skin colors, who otherwise cannot get possibly along.
I took out my sefer and a few other small things and handed my backpack to the man. One of the guards declared that, are far as they were concerned, the bag now belonged to him. I entered the embassy, hoping I would make it out before it was his turn to go in, or, at the very least, before the bomb squad would arrive.
Once inside, they asked me to turn off my cell phone lest it explode and deposited it inside a cubby, handing me a number to exchange back for the phone on my way out. They riffled through my small Gemara to make sure no chametz was inside ó this service was provided at no extra cost ó and allowed me into the next building to renew my passport.
Fortunately, I did finish just as it was about to be my new friendís turn, and I gratefully accepted back my bag. He had with him a bike helmet and a couple of other things that were definitely too dangerous to allow inside, and I offered to return the favor and watch them for him until he left. I even gave him my phone number, just in case, and he wrote it on his arm ó apparently the only way he could smuggle my phone number inside with him.
Anyhow, while I had been inside waiting for my turn, I approached a security guard and asked him if he speaks English. Yes.
Well, I have a question. I had a backback with me, and they gave me a very hard time outside, and didnít allow me to bring it with me. I canít help but notice that there are many women here with purses and handbags. What gives?
Women are allowed to bring in purses, said the guard, but backpacks are not allowed.
I see, said I, even though I didnít. I wondered if they are unaware that women are equal today, and also have the right to commit terrorist attacks. I also wondered why my backpack posed a unique security risk that a handbag did not. Was it the extra zippered compartment? The double shoulder strap?
I asked the guard: What if I said I feel like a woman today? Thatís a big thing in America nowadays. Would that have been okay?
Iím still hoping for clarification here. Maybe I feel like a woman, and maybe my backpack feels like a purse. Who is to say otherwise?
I returned last week to pick up my passport. I carried nothing to drink, nothing to read, and left all but the barest essentials at home. I do not have a purse, and unfortunately, to my great detriment, I still feel like a privileged man, minus any privileges.