Religious girls boarding a gender-segregated bus in Jerusalem
Religious girls boarding a gender-segregated bus in Jerusalem. Photo by Emil Salman
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The excitement that hovered in the air as Simhat Torah approached did not have a name. It was not characterized by the uplifting reverence of the Ten Days of Awe, nor by the feverish cleaning that marked Pesach or by the creative joy that went into putting up a sukkah. The holiday’s principal element − anticipation − was mixed with a dollop of guilt and a dab of revolt, albeit very well repressed. I never asked myself why I was impatient for the holiday meal to end, so I could run, in my finest clothes, all combed and flushed, up the hill from our house to the Ponevezh Yeshiva, to see the yeshiva students dancing with Torah scrolls in their arms as they made the traditional hakafot ‏(circles‏) around the synagogue.

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I was 12, 13, 14 years old. It was the middle and end of the 1950s, but I can still remember the smell of that excitement, when my girlfriends and I squeezed as one onto the narrow, winding staircase of the women’s section in order to grab a “strategic” place behind the mehitza, the barrier separating men and women − a lattice made of stone and resembling a beehive which, to be on the safe side, was covered with a heavy curtain. A no-holds-barred struggle ensued to move the curtain and find openings to peek through. We had struggled to push away the older maidens, who were trying to spot those they loved, either for real or merely in their imagination, among the revelers.

I too had a beloved, a yeshiva boy whose movements I followed from the balcony of our third-floor kitchen; if I had the good fortune to pass him on the street I fantasized that he was looking at me intentionally. It was not possible, however, to cast about for the look of the one-and-only from behind the mehitza. The boys’ mothers crowded next to the lattice and formed a serious obstacle. My sharpest anger was reserved for the older, regular female worshippers, who clung to their places for dear life, mumbling rebukes and complaints against the decline of the younger generations and the brazenness of the young women. None of this deterred us from pushing and trying to catch a glance of the ecstatic dances − from which we were of course excluded.

Outside, on the untiled, almost completely dark square couples could be seen whispering. Actually, all you could see were the young women’s light-colored dresses fluttering in the light sea breeze. The young men’s dark suits and hats created a refuge for them.

Occasionally the flickering light of a cigarette punctuated the dark. Smoking, which is allowed on holidays, ostensibly calms a masculine soul that is bursting with excitement and yearning.

I have no idea how many loves were forged in those hours, how many hearts were broken and how many of the couples later married. A similar scene was played out in the Slabodka Yeshiva, on another hill of the city; a girlfriend, the daughter of the mashgiah ‏(the spiritual supervisor who deals with matters of morality at a yeshiva‏), told me about dramatic relationships sparked there, most of which ended under the wedding canopy.

And then, on one holiday eve, the news spread by word of mouth: Unmarried girls would not be allowed into the hallowed halls of the yeshiva. The reason for this decree was not made known, but it reinforced the vague feeling of guilt we harbored. My heart overflowed simultaneously with disappointment, sorrow and the thought of what I would be missing.

The joy of the holiday was wrested from me and vanished as though it had never existed.

What I am relating here is a minor personal story, but because it touches on and is interwoven with a broader social story, the fact that it is representative is evident: In that aggressive masculine edict, issued without explanation years ago, I can identify the onset of the spirit of stringency and exclusion in ultra-Orthodox society, whose slogan is “The stricter the better.” That separatist, segregationist spirit was introduced and inculcated by the followers of Chazon Ish ‏(Rabbi Avraham Yeshaye Karelitz, 1878-1953‏), leader of Haredi Judaism during Israel’s first years and the person who persuaded David Ben-Gurion to exempt yeshiva students from military service. The spearhead of the Knights of the Order of Strictness was the Chazon Ish kollel ‏(yeshiva for married men‏) in the Zichron Meir neighborhood of Bnei Brak. That’s where it all began. Since then, as with the unrestrained spread of weeds, Haredi society and its religious-Zionist satellite public have been overrun by ever more rigorous regulations.

Standing orders

Immediately after we moved to Zichron Meir from the pleasant village where we − my sisters and I − had attended a coed religious school, our pious father registered us in Beit Yaakov, an all-girls chain of schools. Two years later, before the upheaval had taken root in my rebellious soul, the girls in my class were subjected to a decree which to me, a relatively new pupil, seemed both bizarre and offensive: All the bat-mitzvah girls had to wear long stockings and blouses with sleeves that covered the elbows, which for some reason were said to provoke yetzer ha’ra − “the evil inclination.” I tried to rebel but was totally defeated.

Almost concurrently, the teachers started to preach to us about the superiority of males, who studied Torah, and about the duty and privilege we had to marry a yeshiva student to create convenient conditions for him to make Torah his way of life. Our way of life would be to be teachers, making possible this spousal coexistence. The girls in the Beit Yaakov seminaries were trained to acquire this breadwinning profession, thus also facilitating the fulfillment of the second mitzvah: bearing a multitude of children.

A girl who thought about attending a regular high school, even a state-religious one, and obtaining a matriculation certificate took her life in her hands. I mean this metaphorically, of course, though the threats and boycott of such individuals were very real at the time.

I see a straight line between the decrees aimed at preserving modesty, which in many homes these days are imposed on girls from the age of 3, to the separation that exists on so-called mehadrin ‏(strictly kosher‏) buses, which could be better described as medirin ‏ − exclusionist‏.

A few years ago, on my way back from Haifa, I boarded a privately owned bus that was traveling to my city. When I tried to pay the driver, he told me that someone would come right away to take the money. I sat down on an empty seat in the back part of the bus, and shortly afterward a pleasant, good-looking Hasid with long earlocks arrived and collected the money from the women, flirting with them gently, smiling and asking them to send regards to their family. One talkative woman, who claimed to know me, disclosed that this was a bus in which women and men sat separately. Of that incident it can be said, “They saw, and were amazed.”

On my next trip, a few months later, the bus bore the logo of the public company Egged.

When I got on, the driver ‏(who was not religious‏) barked at me, “Women − from the back door!” Frightened, I obeyed.

“Tell me, are you off your rocker?” a Haredi woman next to whom I sat railed at me. “Why did you get off the bus? I never do that. I walk proudly between the men, and they can go jump in the lake.”

Abashed and humiliated, I sat mute, not saying another word during the whole trip. The front part of the bus was blacker than black, occupied by men. The women, dressed in their finery as though going to a wedding, sat in the back, chattering and gossiping as though this was a postmarital “seven benedictions” event, where men and women sit separately. Occasionally small children crossed from one section to another. I felt as though a time machine was pulling me from the top of my head, taking me back to my roots.

The cordial guy was nowhere to be seen this time around, and I perspired out of fear until the end of the trip. How would I traverse the long distance to the driver? How would I pay him, when the men, with their black-covered legs draped across the aisle, were blocking the way? In the end I got off without paying, mumbling in self-righteousness: Shall you humiliate − and also take payment?

Just before this past Rosh Hashanah, my friend Manuela asked me to go with her from Bnei Brak to Beit Shemesh. We boarded the Egged bus, but despite our modest attire the driver, who looked like a Shas type, gave us a distinctly suspicious look. The bus was mostly empty the whole way. A small notice was glued to the back door stating that every passenger has the right to sit wherever he wants. When we got off, at the last stop, the driver asked us who we were. He must have been concerned that we had been sent by the Transportation Ministry to check up on him.

On the way back, we sat in the front. In the seat behind us was a woman in a hat who was conducting a cellphone conversation in English. It was midday, and the bus got increasingly crowded. The women were concentrated in the back section, the men sat up front, and when all the seats in the front were taken the men huddled in a group, standing next to the driver. There were many empty seats in the back of the bus. The tension was palpable. The woman behind us stopped talking. My friend and I exchanged looks.

Suddenly a woman cried out in a loud voice, “Women! The men are standing! The men are standing!”

“Then let them stand,” the woman behind us said.

“There are empty seats. Anyone who wants to sit, can sit,” my friend said.

“You are sitting in their places!” a few women shouted, joining the angry chorus. “Get out of the men’s places and let them sit down!”

“Why should we get up?” my friend retorted. “Look, there’s a sign here that says every passenger can sit wherever he wants. Isn’t that clear enough?”

Rumblings of resentment and sheer hostility reverberated throughout the bus. We could literally feel the poison-tipped arrows of abhorrence lacerating us. The men continued to stand and did not respond with so much as a word, as though they were “righteous men whose work is done by others.”

The woman behind us leaned over and whispered in an American accent, “This is nothing. Would you like to hear what goes on here every day? Here’s my phone number.”

“Do you live in this place?” we asked. “Are you Haredi?”

“No, thank God. I just work there. Am I Haredi? I thought I was, until I started taking this bus every day.”

We alighted from the bus safe and sound. No one had harassed us. The driver gave us a hostile look. With a sigh of relief, my friend took off her itchy wool hat. My spirits were not lifted by any feeling of relief: I felt distress and frustration, as I always do when I confront women − my distant sisters − who raise the banner of the male establishment.

I have known for a long time ‏(and have also written‏) that women are their own worst enemies. Not only here but in all patriarchal societies, and in significantly more extremist and crueler ways. Indeed, women are known to take part in the appalling and loathsome “honor killings” of other women, and also help preserve the ritual of female circumcision.

And do we hear the outcry of women in countries where the killing of female infants is an everyday event?

Such is the power of doctrinaire education, with the tender young soul, female and male alike, being shaped and molded like Plasticine under the orders of a powerful male ruler.

I don’t know whether the fact that I am descended from a family of women ‏(my mother was one of five daughters; I am one of four and I myself have six daughters‏) gives me an advantage when it comes to divining the feminine psyche. Still, it seems to me that women, by their nature, try harder, need more reinforcement and are ready to give a great deal to feel loved, needed, appreciated.

Faithful offshoot

Not long ago I traveled to the ultra-Orthodox city in which I have been compelled to live as part of my draconian divorce agreement. While the sword no longer hangs over my head, I continue to live on its outskirts, whether by habit or out of convenience or lack of choice. In the city’s bustling stores I buy clothes and sweets for my grandchildren, buy sacred texts for myself in Yom-Tov’s shop, and peruse the obituaries on the municipal bulletin boards.

They constitute a riveting literature: The archaic Hebrew is gorgeous, bold, rife with emotion. Sometimes I can’t restrain myself and I take out a pen and a piece of paper, and copy the hyperbolic texts, which are true in their own way: “Woe unto the ship that has lost its captain,” “The sun has set at noon,” “The angels above have overcome the great ones,”

“Torah, Torah, put on ashes and sackcloth,” “My father, my father, the chariots of Israel and the horsemen thereof!” ‏(This last lament is usually aimed at the person whom all agree ithe outstanding spiritual leader of the generation.)

But this time, to my surprise, the central bulletin board was covered with obituaries referring to a woman: Rabbanit Batsheva Kanievsky. “I shall cry out in lamentation, profound mourning,” the notices screamed in big bold letters, with a bitter eulogy below:

“Wrapped in mourning and agony, together with tens of thousands from the people of Israel, we bitterly lament the sudden passing of the righteous rabbanit, the crown of glory of the women of Israel, a woman whose whole life was devoted to Torah, prayer and charitable works, with sublime dedication to community and individual, whose home was a place of gathering for sages and whose door was always wide open, and who with love of humanity and with her face lit up bore on her shoulders the burden of tens of thousands with holiness, as a nurse carries an infant ... [and] the heritage of her father, the head of Knesset Bnei Gola [i.e., the Haredi community living in its land].”

A second notice described the rabbanit as “the mother and the heart of the daughters of Israel, who devoted herself to every person of Israel. She opened her mouth in wisdom to revive the spirit of the humble, and to revive the heart of the contrite. Never did she turn anyone away empty-handed; she despised all the pleasures of this world and devoted her whole life to the torah [religious teaching] of her husband, may he live a good long life. Amen.”

“What are you doing here?” a woman’s voice startled me. I turned around. A Haredi matron, tall, attired according to all the rules, was standing behind me, almost touching me. Time seemed to shrink as though by a magic wand. Alas, she looked exactly like one of my teachers from Beit Yaakov.

“I am copying the eulogies,” I explained apologetically.

“What do you need to do that for?” she asked sharply.

“No special reason. I like the language. It is so beautiful.”

“Did you know her?” she asked, softening her tone. “No??? That’s your loss. She was a true righteous woman. We are orphaned.”

Tears glisten in our eyes. I stopped what I was doing, muttered something and left. The matron’s gaze continued to pierce my back.

I am certain that the rabbanit was a wonderful, noble person. One of my Haredi girlfriends ‏(one of the few who continues to stand by me‏ after I left the fold) visited her to receive a blessing and emerged deeply moved. But as always with me, along with the identification and the admiration gnaws the indefatigable demon of doubt. Would a different woman, one who was not born “the daughter of” and was not “the wife of” have been able to acquire an unchallenged status like that of the deceased? Were birthright and “husband-right” the sources of the myth that enveloped her in her last years?

The obituaries replied to my puzzlement with peerless honesty. The rabbanit’s greatness was attributed to “the heritage of her father, the head of Knesset Bnei Gola.” She devoted her whole life, one of the notices said, “to the torah of her husband, may he live a good long life. Amen.” She did not devote her life to God’s Torah, not to the Jewish people’s Torah, but to “her husband’s torah.” This precious woman was first and foremost a faithful offshoot of the major men in her life: her father and her husband.

Silent scream

I’ve experienced the total mobilization of Haredi women in carrying out male goals in innumerable ways − and not just on the mehadrin bus. After my first book, the nonfiction “Distant Sisters” ‏(1992; English edition published by the Jewish Publication Society of America, 1997‏), came out 20 years ago, hundreds of Haredi men contacted me by phone and in letters, to thank me. They spilled their hearts out and asked me for help or suggested that I write about them. Only a few women contacted me; one harassed me night after night. A few wrote me letters filled with threats, curses and supplications that I would repent my evil ways. Occasionally an ultra-Orthodox woman contacted me to tell me her bitter story.

One would think that the Haredi world would be obliged to laud the contribution of its women to the building of its society. Any intelligent person can see that were it not for the women − the Atlas on whom this unique gestalt rests − its existence would be in grave doubt. Women are the enablers of the men in this learning society; they have children as per the injunction “and she became with child and gave birth, and she became with child and gave birth,” and thereby augment their society’s strength and scope, raise and educate its offspring faithfully, and manage a household in difficult conditions. There is no Haredi man who is not aware of their amazing powers.

However, the increasingly extreme situation flies in the face of all logic: Women are being ostracized and humiliated by a variety of means. I could mention intimate ritual laws that denigrate women ‏(but prefer only to hint at them‏). Astonishingly, women put up with them, ignore the humiliation, and with indefatigable self-persuasion − and with tolerance and patience stemming from generations of suppression − wipe their mouths and give thanks for the drops of rain that moisten them.

Perhaps it is the men’s gratitude to the women that makes them fearful and suspicious. Maybe they are afraid that if the women become aware of their power they are liable to demand change − to demand that the men imbue their lives with true equality. If so, their supremacy and status will face a genuine threat. Is that perhaps why they keep the women on a short leash, as a preventive stratagem?

Haredi men and women alike, down to the last of them, are bitter about the attempt to intervene in their way of life. I hear them complaining about me, “You have left already, so why do you care what we do, how we live?”

The formal claim being made here is that buses operated by a public company that travel on Israel’s roads constitute a public space. But that is not my ‏(only‏) argument. Under the voices of the women who speak in praise of the men, I hear the voices of other women, silent and hurting. My precise role, after leaving, is to induce that suffering to sound its plaint, to voice this silent scream. I know it is there, thrashing about and agonizing like a mute bird in the basement of the soul.

When my friend and I were on the mehadrin bus from Ramat Beit Shemesh, we felt like Rosa Parks for a day. That ordinary black woman, who became an icon, sat in a seat reserved for whites at the front of the bus, and no demand, rebuke or threat got her out of there. That was a historic day for the struggle for racial equality in the United States. Here in Israel, in Haredi society, that day has not yet arrived.

The writer has published several novels. She has received the Prime Minister`s Prize (2002) and the Book Publishers Association`s Gold Prize for her best seller, "Craving" (2004).