Somehow, I did not put two and two together.
I read Hadassa Margolese’s post (in Hebrew) on the Maariv website back in May about her negative — even traumatizing — experience at her local mikveh (ritual bath) in Beit Shemesh, Israel. Then, recently, I read several Facebook posts she wrote about her family’s move to a new home. However, I didn’t realize until Tuesday that these two things were related. I finally made the connection when I read this JTA article about how Margolese, a reluctant activist, was driven out of Beit Shemesh not by the Haredim she had previously stood up to (when they harassed and intimidated her young daughter over her dress), but rather by her fellow Modern Orthodox neighbors.
Coincidentally, I also read on Tuesday a new e-book by Allison Yarrow, titled, “The Devil of Williamsburg,” about the notorious Nechemya Weberman sex abuse case. It’s all about how Brooklyn’s Satmar Hasidic community covers up everything from minor misdoings to major crimes, routinely shunning community members who dare shine a light on them.
One can’t exactly compare the reporting of crimes like rape and child abuse to the writing of a column about nasty mikveh ladies who over-scrutinize you and don’t give you enough privacy. But, from what I understand, there seems to be a trickle-down effect happening. It’s no longer just Haredi Jews who are hounding and ostracizing those who air dirty laundry in public.
“I was airing our own dirty laundry as opposed to before, when I was airing another community’s dirty laundry,” Margoles said. “I hear from so many women about their negative experiences [at the mikvah]. I thought people would say, ‘Yes, let’s change this.’”
Margolese was so disturbed by the attacks she received from her neighbors on what she wrote that she ended up making the decision to quit Beit Shemesh. “The humiliation I felt from these individuals was worse than all of my negative mikveh experiences all put together,” Margolese wrote on her blog. “I knew about the gossip going on around me. I cried for days. I couldn’t breathe. I stopped leaving my house other than to go to work. I decided that it is time to move.”
It may have taken me a bit to put two and two together about Margolese’s moving house, but it shouldn’t take any time at all to realize that things are very, very wrong in our collective Jewish house if we don’t respect one another’s democratic right to free speech. And as example after example bears out, it is often women’s voices that are either ignored or squelched.
As the old Jewish joke goes: Two Jews, three opinions. It’s meant to be funny, but we need to take it seriously. The last time I checked, we are still living — in both America and Israel — in democratic societies that allow for people to freely express their opinions. We also live in Jewish communities ostensibly driven by Jewish values like mutual respect and giving people the benefit of the doubt.
As someone who puts her opinions out there in public regularly, I know quite well that in an open society, people have the right to criticize or put forth counter arguments. There is always going to be pushback to proposals for change.
But let no one ever accuse those of us, like Margolese, who do publically share our experiences and ideas (and even complaints), of lashon hara, of gossip or evil speech. It was the hurtful comments written to and about Margolese that proved to be far more evil in the end.