Israel Irenstein, who has become something of a relationship guru for formerly Orthodox men, was the focus of a recent Slate article detailing the dating challenges of individuals who grew up in the Orthodox community, but have since left. Among those challenges: “Inexperience, having no identity, and having no understanding of the opposite sex.”
But the story all but overlooks the experience of formerly Orthodox women. And you can’t just ignore the issue of gender — particularly when an individual comes from a community in which ideas about gender roles and personal agency are outside the mainstream.
Alex Newpol, intake coordinator for Footsteps, a group that provides support services to men and women who have left the ultra-Orthodox community, explains that many women in Footsteps struggle with interpreting male advances.
A female member of Footsteps who asked not to be identified because of the insular nature of formerly Orthodox community said the biggest issues she faces are: “How do I say no? How do I decline someone? How do I know if this is a date?”
The woman explained how activities as mundane as shopping for a new outfit can create anxiety over how much skin they should be exposing. She also said that coming from a community in which women often defer to men, learning how and when to be assertive is also challenging.
What does the path to freedom look like?
In the Haggadah it says: “Once we were slaves, now we are free.” That transition is recounted and celebrated in a “Seder” — literally an “order” of fifteen sequential steps.
Freedom means different things to different people. My great journey to freedom was wresting myself out of my ultra-Orthodox Jewish community of origin, and into life as a secular, progressive woman. But I find that I can’t recount my path to freedom in an orderly way.
The transition to freedom is chaotic. It is sprawling and muddled and ugly and glorious and confusing and difficult. In the story of Passover, the transition includes an ancient legend of a redeemer, a young girl challenging her father, another daughter betraying her father, a detour into deeper suffering and darkness, a redeemer with a speech impediment, — and, of course, plagues, journeys out, hot pursuits, persistent courage, profound miracles, dancing, singing, complaining and new troubles. It is a mess.
While some may honor the Passover story with order that counters the pandemonium, in my home we embrace it.
Photos and video from the wedding of Avraham Yehoshua Heschel Halberstam, a son of the rebbe of the Bobov Hasidic dynasty, to Chana Sara Baila Friedman posted on this Chabad website, offer a fascinating peek into a world that is all but invisible to those who are not part of it.
Still, even the most insular of ultra-Orthodox communities are no longer totally cut off from the outside world, a point illuminated by the fact that the Hasidic wedding was live Tweeted.
And this being a Bobov affair, there are competing Twitter feeds as well. The community has been divided since the death of its previous rebbe, in 2005, over who is the rightful heir: the father of the groom, Rabbi Ben Zion Aryeh Leibish Halberstam, who is headquartered at the enormous Bobov synagogue on 48th Street in Boro Park, and the younger brother of the previous rebbe, or his sister’s husband, Rabbi Mordechai Dovid Unger, whose community is headquartered at a somewhat smaller shul three blocks away.
It used to be that while walking in Williamsburg, Brooklyn on a fine spring day or attending wedding in nearby Boro Park, you would see how stylish Haredi women could be. Modestly attired to be sure, with heads cloaked in hats over wigs and clothing safely reaching to above the collarbone, to the wrist and to the calf, but chic nonetheless. Many wore sharply tailored suits and well accessorized blouse-and-skirt ensembles. Skirts were often navy or black, but the blouses and jackets and suits would be pretty colors, occasionally bright and patterned.
Over the past few years, that has changed. Now even on young girls, as well as on boys and men, clothing is mostly black and white, and unremittingly drab. I’m not the only one to notice. Judy Siegel-Itzkovitch, in a “reporter’s notebook” in The Jerusalem Post about the recent Puah Fertility Institute conference, wrote: “Haredi woman and even schoolgirls have in recent years abandoned colorful dresses and coats (even housecoats), and shops in Haredi neighborhoods illustrate the darkening female wardrobe.”
I have my own theory as to why — that it is part of an ascendant culture that expects women to diminish their presence, to disappear except when absolutely necessary. But I also thought I would check with an expert. I reached out to the Forward’s “Wonders of America” columnist Jenna Weissman Joselit, a professor of Judaic studies and of history at George Washington University, whose specialty is the relationship between material culture and identity.
Two prominent Haredi women are boldly, and publicly, speaking out against ultra-Orthodox extremists, who advocate extreme gender segregation, and who, in recent days, have rioted against police in Beit Shemesh and protested in Jerusalem the “exclusion of Haredim” by donning yellow stars and concentration camp uniforms.
Ruth Lichtenstein, publisher of New York’s Haredi daily Hamodia on Wednesday wrote and signed a strongly worded editorial titled “It’s Time To Act.” In it, she describes coincidentally visiting Jerusalem during the protest, and being horrified by “pre-meditated cynicism, the fringe group to which he [a father who dressed his son to look like the boy with the yellow star and upraised arms in an iconic photo from the Warsaw Ghetto] belongs has desecrated an iconic symbol for their own ends.”
She goes on to warn against the serious dangers of dismissing these protesters as crazy people, writing:
One would like to think that there are red lines of offensive bad taste that one doesn’t cross, even in a heated ideological argument, and especially when such an argument is taking place between Jews. But the ultra-Orthodox newspaper Yated Neeman has chosen to cross such a line, by publishing a stomach-turning argument in a piece defending the practice of gender segregation.
According to the website News1, the opinion piece, written by an editor at the paper named Yisrael Wurtzel, was attacking Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s criticism of the trend of gender segregation in Israel as a threat to democracy. In his list of arguments supporting the practice, he offered the following bizarre and sickening example:
Mrs. Clinton, let me remind you … during the time of the Holocaust, the Germans … kept the Jews in sex-segregated cell blocks in the death camps. Even these human beasts saw gender segregation as a natural practice. Men were sent to all-male sections and women to women’s sections.
The troubling phenomenon of excluding women from cemeteries in Israel appears to be getting worse. Last week, Tal Yehezkeli of the IDF radio station Galei Tzahal broke the story of Rosie Davidian, who was not allowed to deliver a eulogy at her father’s funeral. Yehezkeli then reportedly received dozens of calls and emails from women around the country who have had similar experiences. In Jerusalem, women have been prevented from delivering eulogies. In Yerucham, Yavneh, and Elyachin, women were not allowed to accompany the deceased to the burial. In Petach Tivka, Nahariya and Tiberias, the crowd was forced into gender segregation despite the protestations of the families. All of these incidents are against the law, specifically the High Court (Bagatz) 2007 ruling that prohibits the exclusion of women from any aspect of funerals and burials. No less than eight cities are breaking the law, according to Yehezkeli, and women are furious.
Susan Ayad, one of the women who shared her story with Galei Tzahal, said that she was at a funeral in Netanya for her best friend’s husband in which there was enforced gender segregation despite the family’s wishes. She is suing the Hevra Kadisha in Netanya, aided by the Progressive Judaism Movement’s legal aid services (IRAC). According to IRAC:
Adina Bar Shalom is often introduced as a rabbi’s daughter or a rabbi’s wife, but it’s really her own mind that makes her so extraordinary. A pioneering leader within Israel’s tight-knit Haredi community, the 66-year-old Bar Shalom has been making headlines by espousing courageous views about religion and state in Israel. She is emerging as a woman to be reckoned with, one who is not afraid to speak her mind and who promotes a powerful vision with a determined will in the face of some difficult realities in Israel.
Bar Shalom’s most recent news story involves the growing gender segregation in Israel’s public spaces. At an economic conference this week, titled “Women Talking Women,” she criticized the gender segregation of buses as an attempt to “exclude women from the public domain,” and said that it “violates Torah.” Bar Shalom, who is the eldest daughter of Ovadia Yosef, former Sephardic chief rabbi, said that she understand Halacha as a system that “treats women with the utmost respect.”
Significantly, Bar Shalom, who founded the Jerusalem Haredi College, the first college for ultra-Orthodox women and later men, also made some very pro-feminist statements, arguing that although Haredi women tend to be “afraid of feminism,” she thinks that Halacha actually favors gender equity.
The State of Israel was established on the basis of equality between the sexes. I oppose discrimination of any kind against women. We are a single island in a much larger area, a single island in which the status of women is ensured by law. But this is insufficient. We still have much to do in order to ensure gender equality and I say that the first thing is to provide for strong enforcement by the legal establishment of the laws designed to ensure that same gender equality.
Can you guess who uttered these words?
The answer: none other than Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, speaking at Sunday’s cabinet meeting, as part of a discussion marking the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women. His statement was part of the official record of the meeting. A newspaper report has him further declaring that the exclusion of women and their images from public space and women singing in public ceremonies are issues that the secular public “won’t back down from.”
Every area pertaining to religion and state has been defined in recent years as a battle between secular and Haredi Jews. That has been the accepted view in Israeli society: Ultra-Orthodox and secular are the two camps, and they fight. Shabbat, kashrut, the so-called hametz and pork laws: All the battles have been portrayed in black and white, with everything seen as clear-cut.
But Israeli society is more complex than that. There are a lot more shades of gray, and many more people who define themselves in a more nuanced manner, whether they affiliate themselves with religious Zionism, are traditionally observant or formerly Orthodox, or identify with one of the other Jewish streams — Conservatism or Reform, among others. This complexity began to find expression in the last municipal elections in Jerusalem, when essentially all of the non-Haredim found themselves aligned in one camp, opposite the ultra-Orthodox. We called ourselves “pluralists.”
This past month, the main front in relations between religion and state in Israel has centered around the exclusion of women from the public domain.
For the first time in 12 years there is no woman on the committee responsible for appointing judges to Israel’s rabbinical courts, after the Israel Bar Association failed to elect a woman as its members’ representative. This is being viewed as a tremendous blow to promoting the rights of women who must face these courts in divorce cases.
The 12 religious courts across Israel are desperately in need of reform on critical family law issues, most importantly, divorce. Such reform won’t happen with the election of the two new members of the committee, Asher Axelrod and Mordechai Eisenberg. Not only are both of the new members male, but Eisenberg is Haredi, and both are closely associated with, and have received the endorsement of, Haredi political parties.
Women’s advocacy and religious rights groups are furious at Bar Association leaders for the political wheeling and dealing with ultra-Orthodox parties that led to this development. The two Bar Association representatives join Israel’s two chief rabbis, two senior rabbinical judges, two government ministers and two Knesset members on the committee, all of whom are presently male.
Any parent will tell you that there is no easier way to motivate young children than rewarding them with a sticker for good behavior. The sticker can have anything on it — puppies, kittens, smiley faces, hearts, flowers — as long as it is colorful and cheerful, kids will work to earn it.
The Israeli government’s largest HMO, Clalit, decided to use stickers in clinics for the ultra-Orthodox population to motivate stickers for children undergoing examinations and medical procedures. The design they chose were photographs of real kids on them, accompanied cheery slogans like “Get Well Soon!” “Good boy!” and “Good girl!” as well as one with a blessing for healing the sick. Sounds innocent enough. So what’s the problem?
Reflective the disturbing trend of eliminating female faces from the public sphere in ultra-Orthodox Jerusalem, the stickers only have pictures of boys. Girls are invisible.
One issue I never quite thought I would experience in 2011 is bus segregation. I am not referring to blacks and whites, because, after all, this is not 1960 in Mississippi. I am referring to the gender segregation of men and women on buses with routes originating from the predominately Orthodox neighborhood of Ramat Shlomo in Jerusalem.
With a group of women visiting Israel on a National Council of Jewish Women study tour, I recently rode the buses to experience firsthand what it is like to be a woman and assume you must “go to the back of the bus” when you board bus No. 56 or No. 40.
This now illegal activity started in 1997, when public transport companies began to operate special bus lines for the Haredi public, beginning with two lines in Jerusalem and Bnei Barak. Called “Mehadrin” (extra kosher) lines, women would board the bus through the rear door and men would board through the front door. Women who objected to these rules would be subjected to harassment and intimidation and, in some cases, physical violence.
Yacov “Jacob” Marmurstein, owner of the company that runs the quasi-public B110 bus between Williamsburg and Boro Park, is denying that patrons are segregated by gender onboard, though he appears to be the only person unclear about the longstanding practice.
The B110 bus has long required women to sit in the back while men are up front during the trips the bus makes roughly every 20 minutes, from early in the morning until after midnight, between the neighborhoods which much of the Hasidic community in Brooklyn calls home. The buses look different from MTA buses, with dark-tinted side windows, among the distinctions. They don’t accept MetroCards but do have bus stops like any other city bus.
New York’s Department of Transportation wrote to Marmurstein on October 19th, during the Sukkot holiday, enjoining his company from continuing the practice after the story was reported by the Columbia Journalism School publication The New York World.
Israeli blogger Hanna Beit Halachmi asks in the title of her most recent post whether Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat is good for Jewish women. For her the question is rhetorical, as she is outraged as what she perceives as the many signs that Barkat is capitulating to Haredi political pressure, especially when it comes to the elimination of women from the public sphere.
Barkat’s punishing of City Council member Rachel Azaria earlier this week for petitioning the High Court of Justice to enforce a prior ruling prohibiting the segregation of men and women on the streets of Haredi neighborhoods, is just the latest example. The Sisterhood broke that news in this post.
While liberal and pluralistic Jerusalemites are railing against Azaria’s firing from her job overseeing early childhood education and local councils administration, Barkat maintains that his actions have absolutely nothing to do with religious pluralism and civil rights, and everything to do with procedural matters. He maintains that just as a government minister cannot sue the prime minister, neither can a city council member submit a legal complaint against the municipality.
Every day sex-segregated buses for Hasidim roll right past my corner, ferrying people between Williamsburg and Boro Park. It never occurred to me to write about it.
I’ve been writing and editing lots of Sisterhood stories about the sex segregation problems in Jerusalem and its environs, but I assumed that the bus line that I see six days a week (not on Shabbos or holidays of course, when we often see men in shtreimels and frock coats making the trek by foot) was private. It is painted different colors, has a different kind of bus-route display on its front, the long windows on the side are tinted dark gray so you can’t see in, and the buses are festooned with Yiddish ads for everything from kosher vitamins to holy books.
Why on earth would it have anything to do with the New York City public transit system?
Israel’s High Court of Justice has just ruled that there can no longer be gender segregation on public streets of the Haredi Jerusalem neighborhood Mea Shearim, according to Haaretz. Except this year, the ruling states, when a barrier of up to 26 meters long may be erected to separate the sexes during the festival of Sukkot, as it was last year.
Jerusalem City Council member Rachel Azaria, who was recently interviewed by The Sisterhood’s Renee Ghert-Zand, and her colleague Laura Verton petitioned Israel’s High Court to require police to enforce the law, according to Haaretz. This is the last year when the segregation will be allowed, the court wrote in its decision. But of course that’s not very likely to provide a bulwark against the increasing confinement of Haredi women out of public view.
The extreme approach is quickly becoming normative and a value internalized by women in the community. That, in my opinion, is evident from what appears to be a growing number of women who are eager to comply in the name of obedience and modesty.
In a Hasidic community, where ritual life is separate for men and for women, there is lots of ‘women’s space,’ like their section at synagogue and at the mikvah. But recently there has been a new kind of space for women, one created by Bronya Shaffer. Bronya, a life-long adherent of the Lubavitcher rebbe and his teachings, is a renown teacher of brides-to-be and counselor to couples. I am lucky to be able to also call her my friend.
On the second night of Rosh Hashana this year she had a holiday meal dinner party bringing together an ever-changing group of her friends who are single. They range in age from their 40s to their 90s. Some are divorced or widowed, while others haven’t married. Some are frum (Orthodox) from birth, while others are ba’alei teshuva, or people who adopted observant life but weren’t raised that way. Some are professionals, others artists.
They are as eclectic a group as Bronya’s entire circle. She began the holiday meals in 2008, about a year after her husband, Gedalia, was killed by a drunk driver.
As someone whose patient base includes a not-insignificant number of ultra-Orthodox Jews (I don’t particularly like that title for the right wing of the Orthodox community, but it’s a shorthand I can live with so let’s just go with it), I am thrilled that someone created a clear, concise and accurate book on sex for this population.
Mind you, sex for this population is not fundamentally different from sex with any other population. Slightly more limited, perhaps, but the fundamental principals remain the same for most of us.
It seemed as though Rachel Azaria, then a 30-year-old mother of two, came out of nowhere to run on a grassroots, independent party ticket and win a seat on the 31-member Jerusalem City Council in 2008.
Although this was her first foray into politics, she was already a recognized figure in the world of Israeli social change organizations. For the decade prior to her election, she had worked for environmental causes, and then as the director of Mavoi Satum, an organization that works on behalf of women whose husbands refuse to grant them a Jewish divorce.
Since joining Jerusalem’s City Council, Azaria has assumed the Early Childhood and Community Councils portfolios, helped establish the new civic non-profit organization called Yerushalmim (Jerusalemites), and given birth to a third child.