After all the New York Times articles, PBS segments, NPR interviews and memoirs (including my own) about the Off The Derech (OTD) narrative, the long rumored OTD TV show has finally arrived. Well, the show isn’t exactly about a person trying to build a self-determined life after leaving ultra-Orthodoxy — but it still feels like a sample of the genre.
I’m talking about Tina Fey’s new Netflix comedy, “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt.” The show follows twenty-nine-year old Kimmy (the ebullient Ellie Kemper), as she transitions into a new life in New York City after being held captive for fifteen years, together with three other women, by a doomsday religious leader in an underground bunker in Nowheresville Indiana.
Certainly, an ultra-Orthodox childhood is a different kettle of fish from a prolonged stay in a hole in the ground, but as I watched Kimmy’s unusual transition into “normal” adulthood, I couldn’t help but be reminded of my experiences and those of my friends.
A sign in the entrance to Mea Shearim neighborhood in Jerusalem. Photo by Wikimedia Commons / Lisa Mathon
Modesty signs in the ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods of Jerusalem are a common sight.
The forbidding black headlines generally read, “Please do not pass through our neighborhood in immodest clothes” – with a detailed description of the dress code to be obeyed by women lest they risk “offending” or “violating the sanctity” of their surroundings.
Most tourists come back with snapshots of such signs. But what may be a quaint custom to a visitor is, at best, an inconvenience and, at worst, a threat of violence to the women who live their lives in Israel’s capital.
Jerusalem’s ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods, after all, are not remote villages, but central parts of a busy metropolis. Many of these neighborhoods contain – or are adjacent to – public health clinics and government offices that women from across Jerusalem must frequent, and shouldn’t have to change their clothing in order to do so, for fear of being verbally or even physically harassed as a result.
Laura Wharton, a member of Jerusalem City Council, has complained to the municipality and mayor Nir Barkat about the signs in the past on the grounds that they are illegal, with no success. “I didn’t get a serious answer. I was brushed off.”
Racheli Ibenboim, of the Gur Hasidic sect, who was nominated for Jerusalem city council but dropped out after facing threats and intimidation
(Haaretz) — The backlash against ultra-Orthodox women who are daring to demand a public voice in government didn’t come as a big surprise, but it did come swiftly and harshly.
Last week a formal campaign called “No Female Candidate, No Female Vote” was launched to pressure ultra-Orthodox political parties Shas and the United Torah Judaism party to stop excluding women from their party tickets. Their argument: In an era in which ultra-Orthodox Jewish women are already in the public realm, working as journalists, attorneys, doctors or activists, forbidding them to stand for political office makes no sense. These women, who are more often than not both the primary breadwinners in their households and the primary caretakers of the family, deserve direct representation in the Knesset.
An open letter from this group of Haredi women to the Knesset representatives of the ultra-Orthodox parties was circulated on social media, making waves over the weekend. The letter stated that they would refuse to vote for any party that did not include a female candidate — any female candidate — high enough on their tickets to have a realistic chance of winning a spot in the Knesset. The movement put out its message through a Facebook group and a crowdfunding site, and the effort received extensive media coverage.
Mayyim Hayyim Community Mikveh
The first time I prepared to immerse in the mikveh, the Jewish ritual bath, I was 18 years old and four days away from my wedding. I sat naked in a white bathtub as the mikveh attendant scrubbed my back with a washcloth and a dollop of baking soda.
“You’re lucky you will only have your hair this one time,” the “mikveh lady,” as she was commonly referred to, informed me in Yiddish. (Satmar Hasidic women shave their heads after their weddings and cover them with a wig or kerchief.)
Scrub, scrub, scrub. I pulled my hands in over my chest. Scrub, scrub, scrub. As I wondered if she was looking at my naked body, I shifted uncomfortably, making ripples with the water beneath my feet.
My mother accompanied me on this first visit to the women’s mikveh in the Satmar Hasidic village Kiryas Joel, one chilly December evening 11 years ago. She rang the doorbell of the vast grey brick building that sits on the corner of one of the village’s main roads and is surrounded by tall pine bushes to obscure the views of passersby. There was a buzz to let us in.
“Welcome to the woman’s palace,” the attendant at the front desk exclaimed cheerfully in Yiddish. “This is the place to relax.”
So a man boards his El Al flight from New York to Tel Aviv, but when he sees that Elana Sztokman is in the seat adjacent to his, he refuses to sit next to her.
Was she holding a howling baby? Did she have a hacking cough? A touch of Ebola, maybe?
No. The problem, simply, was that she was a she.
The man, an ultra-religious Orthodox Jew, was so certain that God didn’t want him to sit beside a woman that he demanded a seat change. Other Orthodox men onboard took up his cause, and the ensuing bru ha ha delayed take-off until, finally, another seat could be found for him.
Sztokman just happens to be the author of a new book, “The War On Women In Israel: A Story of Religious Radicalism and the Women Fighting For Freedom” in which she calls for an end to “the religious extremism that is hurting women” in that country.
Proving? God, if he does exist, has a sense of humor. Or, at the very least, a deep sense of irony.
The outraged essay that Sztokman wrote about the incident quickly went viral.
Will this help Sztokman sell books? I certainly hope so.
Seating flaps like this aren’t unusual for El Al. It happens often enough that instituting gender-segregated seating on their planes has been discussed.
And playing musical chairs with airplane seats, of course, is nothing new. It usually results when families who have been assigned seats all over the plane actually want to sit together. But seat shifting happens for other reasons too. To maximize leg room. To move away from a bathroom.
Nili Philipp (third from right) and other residents outside the Beit Shemesh court house / Courtesy of Nili Philipp
Beit Shemesh has featured prominently in the news over the past several years as a hot spot for violations against women and girls, from the Orot school scandal to several highly publicized assaults against women, to routine harassment of women in the city’s streets.
But June 16 marked a new phase in the struggle for gender equality in Beit Shemesh, three years after I was attacked by a Haredi man who threw a rock that hit me in the head as I cycled along a main thoroughfare, and two years after a mob of Haredi men attacked Vered Daniel, who was holding her infant in her arms at the time, alleging that she wasn’t dressed sufficiently modest, which prompted three other religious women and myself, all residents of Beit Shemesh, to demand that the city address the increasingly frightening attacks against women and girls.
With the help of our lawyer, Orly Erez Likhovsky from the Israel Religious Action Center, we sued the Beit Shemesh municipality for 100,000 shekel (29,200 US dollar) after they repeatedly ignored our pleas to remove the large and imposing illegal signs that harass and threaten women in public areas of the city. The signs loom over main commercial centers and are signed by the local leading Haredi rabbis, ‘requesting’ that women dress modestly. The signs also define modest dress: long sleeves, long skirts, high necklines, no pants, nothing tight. Other signs instruct women to avoid walking or lingering on certain sidewalks, public city sidewalks that were built and maintained with taxpayers money. Not coincidentally, in these very same areas where the illegal signs hang, women deemed insufficiently modest have been habitually harassed, threatened and attacked, lending strength to the thesis that one law violation abates another.
We had several reasons for requesting that the city remove the signs. First, the signs are illegal and intimidating. Their harassing message is an invasion of privacy and freedom. Second, they promote an atmosphere of anarchy by blatantly violating the rules of the State with the tacit approval of the municipality. Third, we wanted a clear public statement that violations of women’s rights wouldn’t be tolerated.
Adam Jones / Global Photo Archive
On Monday, the Supreme Court took the position of so many dayanim (a judge in a religious court, but in the Hasidic world, also a man who rules authoritatively on everyday halachic questions) and rabbis across the world in symbolically declining women reproductive autonomy. (I use the word “symbolically” because the decision will not necessarily affect many women, if any at all.) By ruling in favor of Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Woods, the five ovary-free men essentially said a person’s religious convictions trump a fertile women’s need for sanity.
These five justices, who magically grew long beards and sidelocks while I heard the news, played the part of the quintessential Hasidic dayan who is generally the person to grant or deny a religious woman the ability use birth control. Their decision evoked memories of yesteryear — of a time when I, too, believed a righteous, ovary-free man, is entitled to rule on whether and when my ovaries should be producing tiny human souls.
Just like every Hasidic woman, I anticipated joining the motherhood club soon after marriage, when my ovaries would respond to my husband’s little swimmers. The year was 2004. I was two months shy of my 19th birthday and was married for six months when two bright blue crossed lines appeared on the pregnancy stick. I was ecstatic; having a child signified entry into the adults’ club. It was a rite-of-passage for us young Hasidic girls, and one of the greatest milestones in a Hasidic women’s life after getting married.
When I brought home my 7.3-pound bundle of joy, I struggled with postpartum depression and the usual challenges of first-time motherhood. My husband and I decided to wait some time for baby number two. But the conventional methods of “waiting” were unthinkable to us naïve and impressionable youngsters. We knew that the halacha was not in favor of birth control, and that only a third party — a learned man who spent his days poring over canonical texts — could make decisions about our family planning. And so my husband made his case to the grand dayan of Kiryas Joel. Rumor had it that he was lenient and dispensed a heter (religious permission) easily when presented with a proper sob story.
Leah Vincent’s new memoir, “Cut Me Loose: Sin and Salvation After My Ultra-Orthodox Girlhood,” has a happy ending. But the rest of the book has a different tone.
Born Leah Kaplan, Vincent grew up in Pittsburgh, the daughter of a prominent yeshivish (black hat) rabbi. She was one of 11 children in a household she describes as both strict and unloving. As a teenager, Vincent began to question some the community’s beliefs and traditions, expressing a desire to go to college, exchanging letters with a male friend and purchasing clothing deemed inappropriate by community standards.
When her parents discovered her deeds, they were afraid that her reputation would sully the chances of her sisters finding suitable husbands, and they cut ties with her. She was set adrift, unprepared for life alone.
She entered into relationships with drug addicts and a much older married college professor. She also began to cut herself, and was briefly confined in a psychiatric facility.
Ultimately, she went to and excelled in college, married and built a positive life. Vincent spoke to the Forward’s Curt Schleier about her upbringing and the seemingly increasing number of formerly ultra-Orthodox.
According to YourJewishNews.com, Kiryas Joel’s Satmar Hasidic community has built on 283 acres on the city’s outskirts a playground that completely separates boys from girls. More accurately, the space is divided into four areas: one for fathers with their sons; one for mothers with their daughters; one for boys, and one for girls. The sections are located a considerable distance apart from one another. There are also separate walking trails for males and females.
Kiryas Joel Mayor Rabbi Abraham Wieder approved special funding for the playground, and the Committee of Modesty of Kiryas Joel, overseen by the Grand Rebbe, Rabbi Aharon Teitelbaum, is strictly supervising its operation.
This Sukkot, there is a religious battle going on in the city of Modi’in, Israel, and as often happens in such battles, it is being fought over women’s bodies.
It actually started this past Passover, when the open, mixed city of Modi’in was inundated with visitors from the neighboring ultra-Orthodox town of Modi’in Illit, also known as Kiryat Sefer. The primary attraction for the visitors was Park Anabe, a beautiful expanse that sits 200 meters from my house. While it’s taken 10 years to complete, the park is now filled with playgrounds, grassy knolls, treks, a bike-path, an amphitheater and most importantly, a 14,000 square liter lake with fountains, fish and a variety of boating. Park Anabe is a central part of Modi’in life — members of my family visit regularly — and contributes significantly to the sense of quiet tranquility that characterizes Modi’in.
Since the lake opened in 2010, that tranquility has been interrupted each Passover and Sukkot when thousands of haredi visitors flock to Modi’in to use the park, which offers wholesome entertainment, can accommodate large groups of people, and is mostly free (only the boating and ice creams cost money). But the masses of haredi visitors, who bring with them a culture that is anything but sanguine, often make it difficult for Modi’in residents who are not haredi to find a patch of grass to sit on.
For the most part, Modi’in residents have expressed a mixture of annoyance and understanding about the situation. They’re irritated at what feels like a major cultural disruption but happy that they are living in an open city in a democratic country. That the park is free and that it is such a great attraction is nice. Lucky us. But the holidays end up feeling like a massive invasion. For those weeks when we cannot use our own park, is this just a small price to pay for quality of life?
Such were the general sentiments until last Passover, when haredi visitors started to make demands of the women on Modi’in. Suddenly, things began to change. First, a woman who was performing in the park was asked to leave the stage by haredi audience members — a request to which she unfortunately acquiesced, setting a bad precedent. Then, a well-known local reporter went to the park dressed in her usual clothing (jeans and a tank-top), and was made to feel uncomfortable by other park-users. She then wrote about the experience in the local newspaper. Calls to charge entry or close the park to non-residents were posted on blogs and Facebook, but Modi’in mayor Haim Bibas did not heed the calls. At least, not at first.
The American legal system decided decades ago that there is no such thing as “separate but equal.” Segregation is just a fancy word for discrimination. And being forced to the back of a plane — or a bus — is the same as saying you’re not good enough to sit in the front.
Debra Ryder, a Florida woman who says she was pushed out of her aisle seat on an El Al flight after ultra-Orthodox men refused to sit next to her, has sued the Israeli airline. She was, she said in her August complaint, “humiliated” and led by a flight attendant to a middle seat in the back of a recent flight from New York to Tel Aviv.
Ryder is seeking $12,500 in compensation from the national carrier, and in the process has reignited a fierce argument: When does protecting the beliefs of the ultra-Orthodox constitute sexism?
To those who believe in equal treatment, it’s when women are pushed to the rear of a jetliner or to the back of a bus. To ultra-Orthodox adherents, it’s not sexism but a question of morality.
My mother is an Orthodox woman who was raised by Orthodox parents and married an Orthodox rabbi. She has also earned, thus far in her career, a bachelor’s degree and three postgraduate degrees. And while she has more degrees than the average Orthodox woman, she also has more degrees than the average American; as of this year, only 30% of American adults had at least a bachelor’s degree.
I was raised in an Orthodox household where, as you can gather, education reigned supreme, so I was frustrated when I read Katie J.M. Baker’s recent Jezebel article, “Orthodox Jews Are Unsure How They Feel About Divalicious Aspiring Politician Mindy Meyer,” about the so-called Orthodox response to Meyer — and how it’s been labeled a conversation about the domestic role of Orthodox women.
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?