Ultra-Orthodox Man Wears Full-body Condom, World Media Goes Wild

Despite its questionable origins, a photograph of an unnamed Haredi man wrapped in a plastic bag on an airplane has gone massively viral. Why is the virtual world so fascinated by images representing the extremes of Israeli reality?

You could actually watch the photograph going viral across social media just hours after it was posted. An ultra-Orthodox man, fully visible yet completely encased in a clear plastic bag, sitting on an airplane. Some of his fellow passengers were ignoring him, others seemed to be peering at him over their seats. It seemed everybody needed to put the strange sight on their Facebook page or tweet the picture to their friends.

The photo first appeared when posted on the picture-sharing site Imgur, and was then linked to on the Reddit atheism board by a Reddit user (they call themselves the godless Redditors) called FinalSay.

The original post was captioned with some misinformation saying that the reason for the bag was to prevent him coming into contact with women. But the first Reddit commenter pointed out that it was pretty obvious that the man was a Kohen (a member of the Jewish priestly class), trying to avoid the contamination of flying over a cemetery, because Kohanim are expected to do everything possible from coming into contact with the dead, whose essence is supposed to somehow radiate up into the skies above their graves. The commenter linked to an old article from this newspaper which offered some historical background:

“In 2002, a flight crew had to prevent an ultra-Orthodox passenger, flying from Israel to Britain, from wrapping himself in plastic bags. The pilot was forced to return to Ben Gurion International airport in order to remove the passenger from the plane. The passenger, a Kohen, wrapped himself in plastic bags for fear that the plane's route would pass through the air above the Holon cemetery and he would consequently become impure."

"Rabbi Yosef Shalom Eliashiv, the leader of the Lithuanian Haredi community in Israel, published a halakhic ruling in the past stipulating that Kohens mustn't fly in this plane because they are prohibited from flying over a cemetery. Later, Rabbi Eliashiv found a solution to this issue, ruling that wrapping oneself in thick plastic bags while the plane crossed over the cemetery is permissible.”

I am far less fascinated by the plastic wrap phenomenon itself and the reasons for it than I am fascinated by the fascination, the insanely high level of interest.

How high? Within two days, the photo has climbed the new media and journalism food chain - from Reddit to Facebook and Twitter, to trend-spotting sites like Gothamist, news sites specializing in religion - including Jewish sites - and then quickly into the mainstream media sites with a tendency towards the tabloid side, into link-hungry publications such as Britain’s Daily Mail, and the New York Daily News and the Huffington Post.  

It has done so without any verification of the photograph’s authenticity, when and where it was taken and by whom. Welcome to the media in the age of the Internet - who wants to allow the pesky pursuit of facts to get in the way of thousands of hits? I presume - or rather, I hope - that other journalists like myself made at least the token gesture of sending a message to the Redditor who posted the photo and tried to find out the origins.

I did so because I have been a little suspicious of the photo from the very start. It is a little too perfect-looking - from the angle, which would seem to me to be difficult to achieve inside and aircraft - to the fact that the bag is transparent enough to see the man inside, to the neat plastic knot on top of his head.

It’s not that, given the reality of a rabbinic ruling justifying it, I doubt that someone has done this. But I have thought that if it was captured on camera, the bag-wearer would be quite so ready for his close-up - I thought it would look more like this image obtained by my friend Amir Mizroch and posted on his blog, a little blurry and strange, the plastic bag not being so conveniently see-through and with the man surrounded by other haredim, not typical airline passengers.  

The closest attempt I’ve seen of a factual explanation is a third-hand story - Ynet reporting that Kikar HaShabat (a haredi website) reported that Yated Ne’eman (a newspaper so haredi that they don’t have a website) reported that the man was a B’nai Brak resident returning from Englad via Cyprus after he missed his original flight. Because of Obama’s visit his plane was routed over a cemetery - hence the plastic bag. Nice tale, but I’d still like some names and dates. Wouldn’t at least one person who was on that flight have spoken up?

Leaving aside the question of authenticity for a moment - it’s amazing that so many people are so interested in this picture. The original photo now has, after only two days, racked up over a MILLION views. The last time a picture in our little corner of the Internet churned up close to such a viral fuss took place nearly years ago when a photo appeared of an Israeli girl in a bikini on the beach toting a machine gun - no one ever stepped forward to identify the girl or the scene either. Bikini Girl, however, couldn’t hold a candle to Plastic Man when it came to numbers - as lovely as she was to look at, she garnered only 846,000 views over the past ten months.

I can’t think of two images more different from one another. Think about it - a heavily armed bikini-clad female soldier and a haredi man wrapped in plastic - each represents a different extreme of Israeli and Jewish reality.

While we Israelis crave normalcy, it always seems to be the images of us that are anything but normal that captures people’s imagination and make waves in this brave new virtual world.

UPDATE - The mysterious passenger in the plastic bag has come forward and given an interview to the Hebrew-language website Ynet, but asked that his name not be published.

The website says that the man claiming to be the subject of the viral photograph is a formerly non-religious IDF officer who served ‘in sensitive positions’ in the military. In 1983, he said, he was afforded the opportunity to pursue yeshiva studies for two and a half years, funded by the army. Afterwards, he said, he returned to duty newly observant and served an additional decade of IDF service as an air force officer.

The man’s rabbi, Yosef Bruck of the Netivot Olam yeshiva, told Ynet that after the man, who is a Cohen, about to embark on a flight before Pesach, learned that his aircraft's flight path had been changed and would travel over a cemetery, he consulted with rabbinical authorities, who told him to wrap himself in plastic to protect him from spiritual contamination. Rabbi Bruck sharply condemned what he called the ‘ridicule’ of the man, saying that just as people understand customs such as Muslims removing their shoes in a mosque or Christians removing their hats in a church, they should “treat Jewish customs with respect.”