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.
It’s not right that the denim-skirted young girls of the Orot Banot school in Beit Shemesh should be the front-line soldiers in the battle for religious tolerance and co-existence in their city. But as they face jeering men and hurled eggs, and tomatoes as they walk to and from their classrooms, that’s exactly what they are.
Back on Sept. 1, I wrote here at The Sisterhood about the national religious girls school Orot Banot winning an important battle merely because it was able to open its doors for the school year.
The opening of the school took place in spite of opposition from a group of extreme Haredi neighbors who zealously opposed the girl’s schools’ location on the seam between national-religious neighborhoods and a Haredi neighborhood. Their campaign to prevent the school from opening won the support of the city’s mayor, who was subsequently overruled by the Ministry of Education.
Just when we thought that gender segregation in Israel had become endemic, it spread further. In addition to the segregated business conference that my Sisterhood colleague Allison Kaplan Sommer reported on here, three new fronts for gender segregation have opened up in Israel, each one bringing a new version of extremism to life here.
The first is the Jerusalem light rail, which is slated to begin operating in the coming months. According to recent reports, the Haredi community has succeeded in winning gender-segregated cars. When the idea first reared its head last year, the (secular) managers of the project surprisingly expressed favor for segregation, citing the need to “serve everyone in the city.”
The idea that misogyny deserves to be accommodated by the municipality represents a frightening intrusion of warped religious thinking into public life.
The writer, who went by the pen name “Eishes Chayil” (or Woman of Valor), told the world that her real name is Judy Brown.
Ten months after publishing her debut novel, and several months after she began getting death threats through her book publisher for writing in the voice of a victim of sexual abuse, she is making her name public because she has been moved by the murder of Leiby Kletzky and wants to do what she can to change the Hasidic community’s secrecy and denial about the existence of pedophiles and other victimizers.
The details of the murder last week of 8-year-old Leiby Kletzky are heart-rending. It was an act of evil that recalls the first time in modern memory that a stranger abducted a child off the streets of New York City. That child was also a young Jewish boy, Etan Patz, who had, like Leiby, begged his parents to allow him to walk alone, in that 1979 case to the school bus stop. This week, Leiby was trying to walk home from day camp.
There has been a plethora of coverage of Leiby Kletzky’s murder, including this New York Times piece about the ultra-Orthodox community’s tendency to view Jews as “safe,” and non-Jews (or those who appear not to be Jewish) as dangerous.
As Etan’s father, Stanley Patz, told Clyde Haberman this week, “children are vulnerable.” Most children Leiby’s age, especially in the ultra-Orthodox community, don’t understand the danger that strangers — even Jewish ones — can present. One of the nice things about children in Haredi communities is that, protected from television news and reality garbage (since most Haredi families do not have televisions), they have the sweetness of childhood on them for as long as possible.
There is also that “double standard” that Joseph Berger writes about in The Times.
What if you were a woman entering a business conference in order to hear speeches the mayor of a city, a government finance minister and the CEO of a major bank, but were turned away at the door because you were female and the audience was limited only to men “for modesty reasons”? One might expect such a thing to happen in Saudi Arabia or Iran. But it happened last week in Jerusalem.
Women expressed anger, frustration and disgust after they were barred from entering a “management forum” held by ultra-Orthodox newspaper Hamodia. Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz, Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat and Bank Hapoalim CEO Zion Keinan were among those speaking at the conference.
It wasn’t only secular women — but also Orthodox businesswomen — who were turned away, and complained about the treatment. One told Ynet that it was “humiliating and incomprehensible.” The event was not advertised or promoted as an exclusively single-sex affair.
Batya Kenanie Bram, a former Israeli government spokeswoman, said she was looking for a new challenge. The working mother of three wanted to do something that she thought would have more direct social impact. Drawing on her natural business acumen and her formal academic training — she has a master’s degree in political science and public administration — she began teaching Haredi women in Jerusalem to start and maintain small businesses.
Kenanie Bram said it has been deeply fulfilling to help the women with whom she works understand that to be a good wife and mother and a productive and profitable entrepreneur are not mutually exclusive pursuits. She spoke recently with The Sisterhood.
Renee Ghert-Zand: What does your work with these Haredi women entail?
Batya Kenanie Bram: The program I am involved with is an initiative of the Ministry of Commerce. It involves courses on how to start a business from theoretical, legal and tax perspectives. We work on self-empowerment and we evaluate personal strengths and weaknesses using models from the business world. We also cover marketing, presentation skills, negotiation skills, and the basics of business planning. The women also require ongoing coaching, and sometimes just someone to talk to, because their regular environment doesn’t provide the support and stimulation they need to advance.
Ever since the marriage of Rebecca and Isaac over three millennia ago, the children of Abraham and Sarah have toyed with the practice of betrothing their daughters at very young ages. Of course not all scholars agree that Rebecca was actually three years old when she took the fateful decision to feed Eliezer’s camels and cement her destiny as a Jewish matriarch. Realistically, many scholars (including Maimonides, Tosafot and Sifrei, for example) argue that the age is a fabrication. Nevertheless, the mythology of the girl-bride has relentlessly taken hold, to such an extent that even now, thousands of years later, the practice is frightfully tenacious.
The latest chapter in the Jewish annals of child-brides emerged last week in Kiryat Sefer (Modi’in Illit), a Haredi town in the center of Israel not too far from where I live. A 13-year-old girl whose parents were horrified to discover that she was talking to boys (my word!) was apparently married off to a 16-year-old boy from Rehovot. Rumors are sketchy about whether they were merely engaged or secretly married. But according to a report in Haaretz, the girls’ parents were so overwhelmed by their daughter’s rambunctiousness that they turned to a local kabbalist who told them that “this was the only way for the girl to supposedly atone for …. her sin.” The welfare department, the police, and even other local rabbis tried to intervene to prevent the marriage from taking place, but the social workers learned that the marriage took place anyway. (Government social workers are now on strike in Israel, and are thus not currently involved.)
Just when you thought the policing of Haredi women’s appearance couldn’t get more extreme — it does. According to Ynet, a kosher certificate for women’s fashions now exists. An ultra-Orthodox body called “the Committee for the Sanctity of the Camp” has begun supervising clothing stores offering such heckshers in the ultra-Orthodox Jerusalem neighborhoods of Mea Shearim and Geula.
Here’s how it works: The merchandise of various stores is inspected for sufficient modesty by female inspectors armed with such rabbinical standards as making sure skirts are not too short or necklines too low. Afterwards, the names of those with the official stamp of approval are published in ultra-Orthodox publications, and women urged to buy there. Presumably, those retailers that do not measure up will run the risk of protests, boycotts or worse.
An advertisement taken out for the Committee states that stores that do not sell sufficiently modest clothing are “damaging our camp’s modesty” and “experience shows that there is no other way to defeat this horrible breach other than having rabbis supervise the clothes’ kashrut.”
Modest Western clothing, of course, is not enough for the small but growing cult-like group of Jewish women concentrated in Beit Shemesh and Jerusalem who insist on completely draping their bodies in clothing burqa-style.
When I saw this blog post, about attempts by some ultra-Orthodox authorities in Israel to ban Facebook from Haredi homes because the ubiquitous social media site “greatly damages families,” I thought it just another example of the community’s ongoing effort to build the shtetl walls high enough to control people’s behavior.
Then I read this week’s New York magazine cover stories on pornography. Now, New York mag is one of Boychik’s favorite quick reads and I usually pass it along to him after hubs and I are done. But this issue? No way. Next week, he turns 17, and there is no way I’m putting this smut in front of him. The main story is about how social media are contributing to the over-sexualization of teenage girls, and how even 12-year-olds are getting bombarded with hyper-sexual, emotionally disconnected online come-ons. It’s accompanied by pictures of young women in come-hither poses in what appear to be teens’ bedrooms. That there’s a qualifier under the photos — “All models are, by the way, over 18” — doesn’t make it much better. The stories are grotesque and neither well-written nor particularly insightful, and not (attn: New York magazine editors) what I subscribe to New York for.
Bad as that was, it was compounded by the story I woke up to in the Wall Street Journal’s Personal Journal. That article on the front page is about new makeup being marketed to tweenage, and even younger, girls. It includes “before” and “after” shots of a fresh-faced 8-year-old who looks twice that old with the makeup on.
Spiritual beauty is increasingly not enough for ultra-Orthodox women. More and more, plastic surgery is becoming acceptable in a community where it was once unheard of, and rabbis are relaxing their opposition to it, a recent article in Ynet reports.
Religious Jews are notorious for shunning cosmetic alterations to the body — tattoos are a famous no-no.
Until very recently, nose jobs and breast enhancements were looked upon as frivolous procedures for the secular community, in which women (and men) were willing to risk their lives to serve their vanity. But now, with the risks of cosmetic surgery reduced, a small but steady trickle of Haredim are finding their way to the plastic surgeon’s offices, with the blessing of their religious leaders.
Sunday was the enormous Lubavitch Kinnus HaShluchim, replete with 3,500 of the rebbe’s emissaries in Crown Heights for Shabbos and coverage in The New York Times, of the banquet meal at Brooklyn’s cruise terminal, the only space large enough to accommodate the crowd.
I write this while watching a live feed of the speakers. The shluchos, or female emissaries, have their own convention in Brooklyn in February. Shluchim are only sent out as married couples, and in the Lubavitch community both the husband and wife are regarded as full partners in the work.
Seeing this weekend’s convention reminded me of the speaker I heard at a recent Shabbos dinner, where Rabbi Chaim Miller spoke about “kosher feminism.” It was held at the synagogue where my husband and I were married, 20 years ago, which is being revitalized by a young Lubavitch shaliach named Rabbi Ari Kirschenbaum.
I’m not one to frequently applaud the approach to female modesty in the ultra-Orthodox community. Particularly during the hottest days of an Israeli summer, seeing Haredi women perspire under layers of clothing, wigs, hats, and heavy wool stockings makes me sweat in sympathy.
And over the past years, we’ve seen the birth of the Jewish burqa-wearers, embracing the most uncomfortable of severe Islamic restrictions — a fully covered body and a veil over the face.
That is why I was pleased, even inspired, after seeing the photos in the Israeli press of the men of the Hasidic Bratslav sect setting off on their annual pilgrimage to the grave of their spiritual father, Rabbi Nahman. Tucked under their hats were black cloths covering their faces, that they were wearing for the airplane journey so as not to defile their vision with unclean images.
The politics of Muslim women and the burqa has sparked debate and grabbed headlines worldwide. Numerous communities and countries have been wrestling with the question of whether banning modest dress that covers the face is protecting — or violating — human rights.
Here on The Sisterhood and in numerous feminist circles, it has been hotly argued. Jews have appeared on both sides of the debate. Some agree that fully veiled women in public is disturbing and a security risk. Some on the left, view it as free expression. And many Orthodox Jews fear the slippery slope — one day burqas and veils are banned, the next, all forms of religious garb could be in danger.
The phenomenon of veiled Jewish women has been a non-existent to fringe issue in the debate. It was unheard of until a few years ago when some extreme Haredi women in Beit Shemesh in Israel began covering their faces. The media spotlight shone briefly on the phenomenon, when one of these women, dubbed the “Taliban Mother” in the Israeli press was accused of child abuse.
Bikini clad models were trotted out at New York City’s transportation headquarters this week to protest the Brooklyn Hasidic communities’ protest of their presence in advertisements for Georgi vodka on the sides of buses that pass through neighborhoods heavily populated by the ultra-Orthodox community.
More can be read in this report on the Fox News website under the heading “Pop tarts.”
Of course, why a vodka ad has to feature a woman’s tush touting the name of the liquor eludes me. But then, that’s probably why I don’t drink Georgi. I’m more of an Absolut girl.
Noa Raz wasn’t totally surprised when, on May 11, a Haredi man stared at the marks on her arm at Be’er Sheva’s central bus station. The 30-year-old Israeli woman prays each morning wearing a tallit and tefillin and the latter sometimes leaves imprints on her pale forearms.
As she waited to board a bus to Tel Aviv, the man, who appeared to be in his 40s, asked her several times with increasing hostility if the imprints were from tefillin. Each time, Raz told The Sisterhood, she ignored him. Then he stood in front of her and loudly demanded to know. She said, “yes, they are from tefillin, and what do you want?”
Then something happened for which Raz was totally unprepared: the man grabbed her hand and began kicking her legs, screaming that she was “an abomination.”
“I was in shock,” Raz said. The bus station was quiet, at 7:30 in the morning, and few other people were around. A handful of men looked on, and one woman yelled at the man to leave Raz alone. “It took me a few seconds to respond, but as soon as I did, it ended quickly,” Raz said.
Ouch. That was my visceral reaction while reading the detailed description of the “Mikveh Wars” taking place in the community of Ramat Beit Shemesh. According to The Jerusalem Post, a battle is raging at the local ritual bath — a war that is a microcosm of the tension that exists in the neighborhood between the Haredi community and the religiious Zionist community.
The battle for supremacy in the divided neighborhood in which the demands of the third of the population that is Haredi are encroaching on the majority of national religious residents — a battle that has included manifestations of violence — is not news. But is this war really being fought on the unclothed bodies of Orthodox Zionist women? One such woman told the Post that the Haredi attendents, charged with the job of making sure the women are fully prepared for their ritual immersion, were being uneccesarily rough, even violent, as they performed their duties.
The Internet can be a nasty place. Whether due to the replacement of visceral human relationships with a cold, lifeless screen, or because people have learned to type faster than they think, something about Internet conversation seems to bring out the worst in human discourse. As my Forward colleague Jay Michaelson pointed out in his column last week, “the immediacy and anonymity of the Comment feature on the Internet encourages one to respond in the heat of the moment, and with as much fire as possible.”
That said, there seems to be a particular fire in talkbacks relating to religious Judaism. Michaelson noticed this as well, what he called, “rage…dressed up in religious rhetoric.” In my writings on topics of gender and religious life at the Forward, in The Jerusalem Post, and elsewhere, I’ve been called a “man wannabe,” an “anti-Semite” and other names. It’s intriguing to me that essays about cultural trends often merit one or two comments while comments about gender and religion can get 20–30 comments. There is an ire around religious issues (especially gender) that begs explication. Michaelson calls for collective anger management, but I think there is something else at work here.
Fordham anthropology professor Ayala Fader is the author of “Mitzvah Girls: Bringing Up the Next Generation of Hasidic Jews in Brooklyn” (Princeton University Press, 2009), which has just been named the winner of the Jewish Book Council’s 2009 Barbara Dobkin Award in Women’s Studies. The Sisterhood’s Rebecca Honig Friedman recently interviewed Fader about her fieldwork in the wilds of Borough Park, Brooklyn, what “fitting in” means among haredi women, and how her research changed her perspective on how the ultra-Orthodox live.
Rebecca Honig Friedman:“Mitzvah Girls” began as your doctoral thesis. How did you choose the topic?
Ayala Fader: Growing up on the Upper West Side as a Reform Jew, I had always been fascinated by Hasidic Jews — they had been presented to me as a remnant of a lost past. I think there was some nostalgia I had which was pretty quickly cured by fieldwork. When I began reading some of the literature on Hasidic Jews, I found out that there had not been much research done on [Hasidim’s use of Yiddish], and even less on childrearing. So for both personal and professional reasons, I chose this topic.
In the book you talk about the importance for Hasidic females of “fitting in” and being “with it.” Do you see the desire for conformity and what we might call “hipness” as being different from the similar desires of women outside the Hasidic world?
In response to haredi efforts in Israel to increasingly segregate public areas by gender – the latest move is to make psychiatric hospitals single-sex only, which you can read more about in the Forward’s article here, an Israeli feminist organization is setting up a hotline for women to call to file complaints about discrimination or attack in public places.
The hotline is being called Hashme’eini, the feminine term for “Let my voice be heard,” and is being established by Kolech, the Israeli feminist organization for religious women. It is being supported solely by the New Israel Fund, which is spending $7,000 on it for its first year.
The hotline phone number is 02-671-1911.
According to an English translation of the Hebrew press release sent out by NIF:
The hotline is for women who wish to express their opinions, and to those subjected to any type of discrimination, insult or attack in the public sphere/space in places such as public transportation, sidewalks, performances, public institutions and others.
The goal of this initiative is to make recommendations regarding advancing/improving the rights of women in the public space, as well as their status, wellbeing, dignity, and to advise and be advised.
Hashme’eini is to go live this Sunday, and will be open Sunday, Wednesday and Thursday, between 3 and 5 p.m.